UC Merced tries food pantry

Staff aims to cut down on hunger

yamaro@mercedsunstar.comMarch 5, 2013 

— UC Merced student Ryan Paw isn't a stranger to the words "starving student."

Going to a UC campus isn't cheap, the 19-year-old from Sacramento said. Sometimes students have to piggyback on their friends supplies to get food, something that Paw would sometimes do during his freshman year.

"A student's account goes down really fast," he said.

UC Merced recently began to offer a monthly food assistance program to students, faculty and staff who are in need. The program is made possible under a partnership with the Merced County Food Bank and the United States Department of Agriculture.

Vernette Doty, assistant director of Student Life and Civic Leadership at UC Merced, said the program is open to the public, but officials are targeting students, staff and faculty.

It's no secret that students go hungry for financial reasons, she said, and officials wanted to help address the issue.

Official say they've heard stories that once every two or three months, there's a student who will pass out because they haven't had food in the last day or two, she said. "We are aware of those kinds of things," she added.

According to the UC Undergraduate Experience Survey, in 2012 at UC Merced, 32 percent of 1,815 respondents reported that they somewhat to very often skipped meals to save money, Doty said.

An additional 24 percent said they skipped meals occasionally, and a 66 percent reported having cut back on expenses in general in order to meet the college costs, she said.

A group of officials got together and started looking at other college campuses that have food pantries to use them as a model, Doty said.

Last month, they had the first food distribution at the Tri-College Center, and 120 people showed up to get bags of food. Of them, six were staff members, Doty said. "There's definitely a need for it," she said. "It was definitely worth it."

Those who took advantage received a variety of food that included canned vegetables, spaghetti sauce, juice and chicken. The next distribution will be from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. on March 15, Doty said.

The third one will be on April 15. Doty said the university is undertaking a three-month trial. After the trial is over, they can make a one-year commitment. "We feel pretty confident that we are going to go through with it after," she said.

Doty said it's mostly students who live off-campus that are in need. Students living on campus get a meal plan.

Students have to file an online form before the distribution date to get food. "There might be three or four students living in a house and they are all struggling," she said.

That could be because nearly 60 percent of UC Merced students are recipients of Pell Grants, which are based on need, Doty said. Seventy-six percent are on need-based grants or scholarships.

These students' parents might not have the financial resources to help them with expenses, Doty said. "They are not getting the same kind of support from home that other students would get," she said.

Janice Schmidt, program coordinator at the Merced County Food Bank, said the program is free to UC Merced. The university just has to provide a site and volunteers to run it, she said.

The food bank has three other USDA sites in the city of Merced, Schmidt said.

Schmidt said it would be beneficial to run the UC Merced site during the summer. "I know a lot of students stay during the summer," she said.

The next two distributions will remain open to students, staff and faculty at Merced College, she said. The food that is distributed is of good quality, it's fresh and it's not outdated, Schmidt said. And because it's a USDA program, people can get meat.

Reporter Yesenia Amaro can be reached at (209) 385-2482, or yamaro@mercedsunstar.com.

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