Get Your Gator Groceries: Program Feeds Students as Food Insecurity Gains National Attention

Thursday, April 11, 2019
Photo of student Maria Ortega picking up a can of soup
Maria Ortega picks up a can of soup and other nonperishable goods in the Cesar Chavez Student Center. Photo by Sreang Hok.

College students have long struggled to complete their schoolwork while dealing with one of life’s most essential needs: sustenance. Several programs at San Francisco State now help ensure that no student will have to skip a meal, providing free and nutritious food at a pantry, guidance in registering for public assistance programs, cooking classes and even leftover food from campus events.

Gator Groceries, Associated Students’ food pantry, launched in fall 2017. It is available to all students with a valid SF State ID. Students can get perishable and non-perishable foods — enough to feed three adults for a week — Mondays from 12:30 p.m. to 3 p.m. Emergency meals and dry goods are distributed in the Cesar Chavez Student Center every Wednesday and Thursday between 1 p.m. and 7 p.m.

The program serves about 300 – 350 students weekly.

“I come every week. It’s great!” student Maria Ortega says while picking up pasta and canned soups. “I only need to buy chicken and milk now.”

Student Seanan Kenney is a food justice activist who has long advocated for a pantry on campus. Many of his college friends have been homeless and struggling to eat, while he observed food going to waste.

“[Gator Groceries] is a step in the right direction, in our excess society,” he says. “We should give some of the excess to people — college students — who are dedicated to making the world a better place.”

Associated Students purchases the food from the San Francisco-Marin Food Bank for between 7 cents and 17 cents per pound. Funding comes from the student body association fee and a one-time grant from the University Corporation of SF State. A new refrigerated area in the Student Center is expected to open this summer, creating storage space that will make more fresh, healthful foods available to students.

More free food and support

SF State’s Health Promotion and Wellness (HPW) division has also implemented several efforts to address food insecurity among students, partnering with Associated Students and other campus groups. Students can get help applying to Cal Fresh, California’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Mondays – Thursdays 11 a.m. – 3 p.m. in the Health Promotion and Wellness office. HPW also offers free cooking classes and demonstrations.

The U.S. Government Accountability Office, analyzing nationwide Department of Education data, found that almost 2 million at-risk students who were potentially eligible for SNAP did not report receiving benefits in 2016.

Students in residence halls can donate their meal points from the City Eats dining commons.

On the official San Francisco State University app, students can opt in to Gator Grub Alert. This is a push notification that pings students’ phones when excess catered food from campus events and receptions are made available to them.

Food insecurity

A 2018 California State University study found that 33 percent of SF State students could not afford to eat balanced meals, 21 percent cut the size of their meals or skipped meals and 20 percent were hungry but did not eat. Nationwide, 20 percent of students at four-year colleges experience food insecurity, according to a 2016 study from the National Student Campaign Against Hunger and Homelessness.

“We were concerned that students would be ashamed to say they needed help,” says Horace Montgomery, interim executive director of Associated Students. “We wanted to lower the stigma and find easy avenues for students to get help.”

All 23 CSU campuses have established programs to address food insecurity — considered a crucial element of a broad system wide effort to boost graduation rates.

“If you think of the holistic student and everything a student needs to graduate, basic needs must be a priority,” Health Promotion and Wellness Director Karen Boyce says. “Research shows that [universities] need to address mental health, access to food, a place to live and a sense of community.”

Stephren Kenyon Ragler, Associated Students vice president of facilities and services, emphasize the importance of eating healthfully. Affording healthful and organic foods is challenging for students. He sees parallels between student food insecurity and the lack of whole foods accessible to African Americans.

“In our communities, there aren’t many grocery stores, just corner stores,” says Ragler, a senior Communication Studies major who grew up in San Francisco’s Bayview District. “Sometimes it makes more sense to get a bag of chips for $2 than a salad for $7.99. That type of mentality still goes around in the realm of college.”

— Matt Itelson

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