The term “starving college student” sometimes is thrown around in a lighthearted way to describe 20-year-olds cooking noodles in a microwave – the one true culinary vessel in every dorm room. But for Sean Henderson, Fresno City College’s interim dean for student services, the phrase has lost some of its humor.
Students face soaring textbook and tuition costs. Many face housing and employment insecurity in an economy still recovering from the 2008 recession. Some may be caring for both children and parents as they attempt to go back to school. They also are a product of their environment, a city that ranks near the bottom in the U.S. in terms of food hardship.
“When I went to college, there was this idea of a starving college student,” Henderson said. “And I was one. But I had more access to food. These students are not this jokey starving college student. They are hungry on a real level.”
That’s why Henderson and other concerned staff members started the Ram Pantry, a volunteer effort created, sponsored and carried out weekly by Fresno City students and staff. The pantry runs every Friday from noon to 2 p.m. and provides any student with as much free food as they can carry with no questions asked. Those in line must simply write down their student identification number.
7,300Number of students fed by the Fresno City College Ram Pantry in 2016
The pantry was created a year ago as new statewide statistics and firsthand accounts by Fresno City professors pointed to one troubling fact: Some students cannot afford to eat regularly. In 2016, at Fresno City College alone, nearly 7,300 students used the Ram Pantry.
What started as a grassroots effort – one teacher even grows produce for the pantry on his farm – soon will be rewarded with a permanent home. And the entire campus appears poised to push forward on a project that has united the often at-odds student body, faculty and administration.
The hunger problem
Fresno City is battling a few daunting statistics concerning hunger in Fresno and at the community college level.
According to the Food Research and Action Center, Fresno was the fifth-worst metropolitan area in the country in terms of food hardship in 2015. The organization surveyed more than 177,000 households nationwide, asking residents if there was a point in the last 12 months in which they could not afford to buy food for themselves or their families. Just over 22 percent of Fresno households said yes – about 6 percent above the national average.
This issue appears to have an effect on education. For example, 71 percent of those with hunger problems were in remedial math classes. Those with food insecurity also were more likely to express their intent to drop out than those who do not have hunger issues.
22.4 percentPercentage of Fresno households that reported food insecurity in 2015
At Fresno City, Henderson said, 3,740 students received food from the pantry in the fall 2016 semester. There were 27,879 students in that semester – meaning just over 13 percent went to the pantry.
Other area community colleges also see hunger issues.
Reedley College has a pantry set up with a permanent location. It helps 60 to 80 students per week, State Center Community College District spokeswoman Lucy Ruiz said.
Clovis Community College does not have a pantry, Ruiz said, but it offers help through a program run by the school nurse. The available aid includes free meals at the campus cafe and $50 gift cards for groceries.
Henderson, who coordinates the volunteer effort at Fresno City, said staff was aware of a hunger problem and “had been picking at the issue” for several years before deciding to open the pantry.
He credits Fresno State for offering advice and guidance on getting started. Fresno State offers food and hygiene supplies five days per week at its Student Cupboard.
Henderson believes there have always been students struggling with hunger, but the problem has increased dramatically since the 2008 recession.
The problem is documented by schools. According to state figures, around 86 percent of students in the Fresno Unified School District, one of the main feeders into Fresno City, qualify for some sort of meal assistance.
“That need for food doesn’t stop after high school,” Henderson said. “It probably gets worse.”
The Ram Pantry opened Jan. 22, 2016. It’s staffed and paid for solely by volunteers. Henderson said 67 staff members take automatic payroll deductions of between $5 and $25 every month, and 40 to 50 students help out at the disbursements each week. Some clubs have held fundraisers for the pantry, but the college has shied away from advertising publicly for fear of shaming any students using its services.
“You can’t imagine the good vibes this project has brought to the campus,” Henderson said. “It’s becoming part of our culture here. It’s been normalized.”
At the Feb. 10 disbursement, Adrian Medina, 22, was standing at the halfway point of a line of people wrapping around the Fresno City College cafeteria. He is a regular, he said, coming every Friday since he learned about the Ram Pantry last semester.
“It’s a way to put a blessing on the table,” Medina said.
Medina, who was carrying several bags with him, said he has had some personal struggles with food and housing since recently losing some of his government benefits. But in the six months he has been coming to the Ram Pantry, he never has seen or even heard of other students giving any in the long line grief for accepting help.
This school is so united, and I’m happy people here look to help other people.
Adrian Medina, Fresno City College student
“This school is so united, and I’m happy people here look to help other people,” he said.
Qohle Martinez, 21, waits about 20 spots in front of Medina.
“I come here often,” Martinez said. “It’s the reason I have bread for my sandwiches and lettuce for my tacos. I’m a starving college student.”
The line for the Ram Pantry is diverse. There are plenty of 20-somethings with backpacks, but there also are young children and elderly folks in electric wheelchairs. It is clear that some people in this line are not students.
Henderson is not blind to this.
“If someone made (a student identification number) up, we wouldn’t turn them away,” Henderson said. “We’re trying to help as many people as we can.”
There was more than enough food for the 130 people served before 12:45 p.m. The pantry typically gets about 200 each week, but extra food can be a problem. The pantry does not have space to store extra food. Perishable items often have to be given to other pantries or schools.
But that’s about to change.
Fresno City College President Carole Goldsmith praised the volunteer effort, saying it laid the groundwork by operating one day a week. However, given the high poverty rate and food needs in Fresno, the pantry probably needs an official location.
Classroom and office space are sacred at Fresno City, which already has a severe space shortage.
The plan is to replace a cafe vendor with the Ram Pantry. This new location will allow the pantry to store dry goods and refrigerate perishables.
Like Fresno State’s cupboard, Goldsmith said, the new pantry also will offer personal items like shampoo and soap. The goal is to be open five days a week once the new pantry gets going, which they hope will be by the end of 2017.
In the meantime, Goldsmith said the college will look to grow its partnerships with the Fresno County Food Bank and other charitable organizations, as well as seek on- and off-campus sponsorships.
How to help
Make checks payable to –
SCCCD Foundation: Ram Pantry
c/o Fresno City College Business Office
1101 E. University Ave.
Fresno, CA 93741