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In her last two years at SDSU, Erika Perez went hungry a lot.
Her scholarships ran out, the university hiked tuition and fees and her rent jumped. She worked two, sometimes three part-time jobs at minimum wage and still came up short every month.
“My last year, I had to decide between couch-surfing and having enough money to eat, or staying in my apartment and going to bed hungry,” she said.
She stayed in the apartment that she shared with other students, and cut back to one meal a day. In three months, she lost 15 pounds. She had sharp pains in her stomach and twice she fainted at work. When her weight dropped to 89 pounds she stopped weighing herself. It was hard to concentrate and sometimes she’d sleep simply for relief from hunger pains. In the spring of 2014, she wondered, “Is this what it means to get a college education?”
Perez’s experience is far from unique. A study commissioned the Cal State University system reported earlier this year that across all 23 Cal State campuses, about 24 percent of students experienced food insecurity in the previous year – meaning “consistent access to adequate food is limited by a lack of money and other resources,” according to the Department of Agriculture.
At SDSU, with student body of 29,000, 24 percent translates to nearly 7,000 students who will at some point go without meals for lack of money, or don’t know how they’ll find their next meal.
San Diego State is not doing as effective a job as many other CSU campuses in helping its most vulnerable students. In October 2015, it rolled out the Economic Crisis Response Team, but much of that program’s work is referrals to off-campus food banks and CalFresh, the state food stamp program. On-campus services include loading students’ ID cards with the price of several meals at on-campus dining facilities, helping students increase their student loans and referrals to on-campus counseling, financial literacy and budgeting assistance. A social worker in the office of health promotion has done case management, working with students whose needs were more complex. Through the end of the 2015-16 academic year, the ECRT served 66 students and spent $550 for on-campus meals, and another $800 for food for former foster youth when the dorms were closed over winter break.
Other campuses have done much more.
The CSU study identified seven campuses that have developed proactive, multi-pronged efforts to help students with food insecurity. Services include emergency grants as well as loans, on-campus food pantries, which the report called a “necessary tool,” a campus garden, nutrition classes, a farmers market held on campus and a mobile app that alerts hungry students when there is food available from catered events on campus. Nine campuses have enrolled as subcontractors for CalFresh, which enables staff to educate students about eligibility and enroll them right on campus. SDSU is not one of them.
The most successful programs have done extensive marketing and outreach to students, usually through alliances with student groups. Volunteers also staff food pantries and assist students with applications for CalFresh. Cal State Long Beach’s campus-wide fundraising campaign created Feed a Need, which urged all residential students to donate one meal from their meal plan to fund a meal for a hungry student. Students donated 1,300 meals for their peers.
Why isn’t San Diego State doing more? The answer lies in what the administration on each campus sees as its obligation to its students. Comparing SDSU’s response to that of Cal State Long Beach, one of the seven campuses with the strongest programs, makes the differences clear. The schools are roughly the same size, SDSU has 29,000 students; Long Beach has 34,000. Both are urban campuses serving large populations of first-generation minority and economically disadvantaged students.
Although both schools focus their efforts on short-term interventions, their vision of their responsibility differs.
“These are our students and they are our responsibility. We’ll do everything we can to help them. It’s the right thing to do,” said Carol Menard, an assistant dean at CSU Long Beach who directs that school’s Emergency Intervention Program.
When I asked SDSU Assistant Vice President for Student Affairs Vitaliano Figueroa, who directs the Economic Crisis Response Team, whether the university had a policy or a statement about its obligation to students, he made a pained smile but said nothing.
Long Beach’s on-campus services include emergency grants, loans, loading ID cards for on campus meals, the Feed a Need campaign, a food pantry run by Associated Students, and Beach Bites, a mobile phone app that alerts hungry students when catered campus events have excess food available. It can refer students to an on-campus office that will assist them in applying to CalFresh, and it also makes referrals to off-campus food banks. The program’s website shows a photo of Menard and the three graduate students who staff the program, with their names and their email addresses. It states a goal of “helping at-risk students with immediate support during their unexpected emergency or crisis through meals, short term housing and emergency grant funds, so they can continue with their academics and persist at CSULB.”
The ECRT’s website says, “We want to help you find the assistance you need,” but much of the site is listings of mostly non-university resources – off-campus food banks, the county’s CalFresh access line and the main office for San Diego County Farmers’ Markets.
The ECRT doesn’t make grants. Irma Murphy, a social worker in the Office of Health Promotion who worked with the ECRT last year, said that if students need more money, both she and the financial aid staff would encourage them to increase their student loans. SDSU made a decision not to establish a food pantry. Figueroa said that the administration feels that providing access to prepared meals on campus via students’ ID cards was more consistent with the university’s goal of providing short-term assistance.
Staffing for the ECRT is lean. Rose Pasenelli, director of financial aid and scholarships, and several of her staff triage student requests, assist students who wish to increase their loans and load meals on ID cards. They refer students with more complicated situations to Murphy, who estimated that in the 2015-2016 academic year she spent 10 hours a week working with students who’d contacted ECRT.
ECRT is strongest in its work with individual students. Pasenelli had IT build a system to track all activity on behalf of students who contacted ECRT, and anyone working with a student can enter notes and can read notes from other providers. As of this fall, the financial aid office helps students with CalFresh applications. Pasenelli and Murphy have personally visited the food banks, shelters and other off-campus agencies where they refer students.
“We want to know about the places where we’re referring students,” Pasenelli said. “We want to be able tell them specifically whom to ask for and what they can expect.”
Serious concerns remain about ECRT’s capacity to meet student need. Murphy left the university in May; her position is posted, but Figueroa could not say when the position would be filled. He couldn’t confirm whether any other human services staff will be providing direct services to ECRT.
Vitaliano Figueroa said Chimezie Ebiriekwe, a senior who’s a member of the student government will help plan ways to help educate students about ECRT.
Figueroa said that the administration is concerned about creating a more expansive program than there is need for.
“We’ve been meeting the needs that have been presented to us,” he said.
But the stats show nearly 7,000 Aztecs are likely to not have enough food at some point each year – and ECRT served 66 students in 2015-16. Limited marketing efforts, a not so welcoming website and a reliance on off-campus resources make it unsurprising that demand for its services has been far less than the actual need.
Long Beach and other campuses have found a variety of ways to raise students’ awareness of their services and to increase on-campus services for hungry students. Some of their solutions could work at San Diego State. For now, too many Aztecs will go hungry.
As for Perez, she graduated and gained back the 15 pounds she’d lost. This fall she’s returning to SDSU to start a master’s program in school counseling. She said she hopes she’ll be able to have enough to eat for the next two years.