Volunteers prepare an ASI Pop-up Pantry for students who need help putting food on their tables. (Sacramento State/Jessica Vernone)

As many as 1 in 10 Sacramento State students face homelessness in a city with notoriously high rents. Hundreds more don’t always have enough to eat, leaving them to wrestle with hunger while trying to concentrate on their studies.

Sac State has a safety net for these students, offering some of the most comprehensive basic-needs programs and services in the California State University (CSU) system. But not all struggling students know they can find help on campus and in the community.

Activities during Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week, running Nov. 10-19 at Sac State and on all CSU campuses, are meant to change that. 

“We hope that students will take advantage of the variety of opportunities to connect with resources, and that they know we care about them and their well-being,” says case manager Danielle Muñoz, who supports students facing serious obstacles to their academic success. “Our campus is invested in ensuring that students have their basic needs met so that they are better able to focus on their studies.”

At Sac State, activities include the Basic Needs Resource Fair, where community specialists will assist students with their food, housing, insurance, and childcare needs. During a tour of the neighboring CapRadio Garden, students will learn about sustainable gardening and can take home a sack of compost, if they wish, and freshly picked produce.

In addition, students will be shown how to prepare healthy meals on a budget (recipes include cauliflower fried rice and vegetable quesadillas), hear from Sac State alumni who launched their own business after experiencing food and housing insecurity as students, and choose free produce at the Associated Students Inc. (ASI) Pop-Up Pantry.

A study commissioned by the CSU Chancellor's Office – and released during the 2018 CSU Basic Needs Initiative Conference in February at Sacramento State – revealed that 47 percent of Sac State students struggle with food insecurity and 12.6 percent have experienced homelessness at least once while in college.

The study also revealed that Sac State’s numbers were higher than the average across the CSU’s 23 campuses, where nearly 11 percent of the system’s 484,000 students have been homeless for a night or longer, and 41.6 percent sometimes go hungry.

In October, the ASI Food Pantry in Yosemite Hall, where Sac State’s students have access to free nonperishable food items and hygiene products, experienced a 152 percent increase in usage over October 2017.

Increasing the days of operation from three to five has contributed to the pantry's growing popularity.

“But we only see around 5 percent of our students at the Food Pantry,” says Reuben Greenwald, ASI’s director of Student Engagement and Outreach. “We know that with awareness, more will come.”

The Food Pantry will move into a larger space in the University Union early next year, after the building’s expansion/addition project is completed. The new Pantry will have a commercial refrigerator, donated by the California Grocers Association, making it possible to offer students fresh produce and possibly dairy products.

ASI relies on donations from the campus community and local businesses to keep the shelves stocked. The ASI Food Pantry and the monthly Pop-Up Pantry recently received a financial boost.

At the start of the Fall 2018 semester, University President Robert S. Nelsen transferred $25,000 in donor gifts from his President’s Circle funds to the Food Pantry, as well as $35,000 to the Student Emergency Fund, which provides individual grants of up to $1,500 for hardships that aren’t easily resolved with a loan or other resources.

In addition, members of the Renaissance Society, a group of older adults who come to Sac State for lifelong learning experiences, raised $10,000 for the Food Pantry during the last academic year. The group has a goal of contributing $15,000 during 2018-19. The pantry also benefited from food drives by two local synagogues, Temple Or Rishon and Mosaic Law Congregation.

Sac State faculty and staff competed during a month-long food drive that started Oct. 1 and pitted campus divisions against each other in a quest to generate the most donations and win the “coveted” Golden Can Award.

Another grassroots effort to feed students began when Jeff Dillon, who works in Information Resources & Technology (IRT), learned that Winters-based Mariani Nut Company had an almond surplus. He made the introductions, and the company donated 360 cases, or 8,640 servings, of nuts to the ASI Food Pantry.

“Our hope for Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week is that we bring attention to the fact that food and housing insecurity are challenges facing many of our students and many others in the greater Sacramento area,” ASI's Greenwald says.  

“Can you imagine if you’re a student living in the Academic Information Resource Center (AIRC) – and we had one – because you don’t have a home, and you get your meals from the Food Pantry, and yet you still study and go to class? Other students have all of the resources, yet you’re supposed to perform just as well,” he says.

Muñoz says that records show all Sac State students who received emergency housing and grants during the 2017-18 academic year remained in school.– Dixie Reid