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Associated Students Food Bank Helps Students During Times of Economic Struggle
By Courtney Hampton, Coastlines intern

C ollege students miss out on sleep when an essay is due. They share a one-bedroom apartment with two roommates to keep rent low. But in the case of UC Santa Barbara students struggling to make ends meet, they skip a meal.

Luckily for these students, the Associated Students Food Bank has been striving to eradicate student hunger by providing non-perishable food and goods without charge.

During the 2010-2011 academic year, students required so much emergency financial aid that there would not be enough to last until the end of the academic year. In October 2011, the Student Financial Resource Committee conducted the Student Financial and Food Needs Survey to address student needs. Of the 2,150 students who responded to the survey, 46.6 percent said that they had skipped a meal at least once per month in order to save money.

“It’s all very quiet,” said Christian Arevalo, Publicity Chair of the AS Food Bank. “Most people aren’t aware of the situation.”

Paul Monge-Rodriguez, 2011-2012 AS President, and Guadalupe Cruz, co-chair of Student Initiated Recruitment and Retention, secured donations from various UC Santa Barbara organizations, including the Alumni Association, to start a food bank. Arevalo was a friend of Cruz and watched the food bank grow from an idea to a fully funded student service.

“We have jumped a lot of hurdles,” Arevalo emphasized. “We had a lot of opposition. There were people who questioned if there was a need.”

A donation drive and publicity campaign in March 2011 stocked shelves and raised awareness for student hunger. The AS Food Bank opened on April 19, 2011 and has since served over 1,800 students.

Today, the AS Food Bank is a student-run organization supervised by a full-time AS staff that serves undergraduate and graduate students. In Spring 2012, UC Santa Barbara students approved a lock-in fee to keep the food bank’s doors open.

“We want to create a comfortable, friendly environment for folks and be able to get more folks into the space because it’s difficult to make that first step,” said Tuyen Nguyen, Staff Supervisor and Adviser for the AS Food Bank.

In order to receive food from the AS Food Bank, students need to show a student ID and sign a self-declaration of income under $14,000 per year. Many students who use the AS Food Bank are freshmen who cannot afford more than a ten-meal-per-week plan or students whose parents cannot contribute financially. Because of rising tuition costs, international students have begun to seek food from the food bank. Other students are parents who are raising a family while studying, and some are graduate students who do not receive enough financial aid or grants. Still other students visit the AS Food Bank because they have lost a job, are waiting on their next paycheck, or have had emergency medical costs.

On average, 315 students visit the food bank each week. Almost half of the students serviced collect financial aid, and 37 percent receive loans. Anonymous testimonials from students who have used the AS Food Bank say that it is a judgment-free zone that alleviates stress when trying to make ends meet.

“There’s more need,” explained Nguyen. “We increasingly have students who come in and say, ‘We didn’t know this existed!’ It was great to hear that when we first started, but now we’re two years into it.”

The AS Food Bank relies on word of mouth for advertising so that funds can go straight toward purchasing goods. However, this means that new students who need the service remain unaware of the food bank.

Rising tuition costs and a struggling job market compound student economic troubles. Between Fall 2009 to Spring 2013, tuition for in-state students has increased from $2,926 per quarter to $4,554 per quarter, a 55.6 percent leap. The Class of 2013 now pays 70% more than when they arrived as freshmen in Fall 2009, tuition jumping from $9,562 for the 2009-2010 year to $13,660 for the 2012-2013 year.

“Students have the avenue to move forward out of poverty,” Nguyen observed. “This is a college degree, and we don’t want them to start out in debt.”

The public can donate money to the AS Food Bank through the PayPal account linked on the organization website. All contributions go a long way: just $25 can feed a student for a week, and $50 can feed ten students for a day. Monetary donations are more valuable for the AS Food Bank because their relationships with the Santa Barbara Food Bank and food retailers allow the organization to obtain a high amount of goods at a low price. About 88 percent of all goods stocked between Summer 2012 and Spring 2013 were purchased rather than donated. Alumni can also bring food donations to the collection bins on campus or ship goods.

Nguyen expressed her gratitude to the Class of 2011 for their $11,000 contribution to the food bank’s operational fees and to the donors at the 2013 All Gaucho Reunion, who gave 867 items and $345. She said it has been very rewarding to see students move out from their stressful situations and not need food bank services anymore. In the future, the AS Food Bank committee hopes to incorporate food and nutrition education, fresh produce, cooking classes, and local job search resources.

“Without the community support and without the campus community to come up to the challenge, we would not be where we are today,” Nguyen said.

Photos courtesy Tuyen Nguyen.