Brenda Hartman drives 50 miles a day to get to her classes at Fresno State from her home in Oakhurst.
When she enrolled there in 2013, she was part of the state’s Welfare to Work program, taking care of her three children and pursuing a master’s degree in public health. Already struggling, a bout of bad luck almost made her give up college in order to make ends meet – something the 52-year-old had done many times before.
“The well pump broke. The car broke. I found myself using food stamps or food banks,” she said. “I started and stopped my education for the last 30 years of my life. Sometimes you have to quit going because you have to pay the bills.”
Then Hartman found the Student Cupboard – a free food pantry for Fresno State students that opened in 2014. Students are allowed to obtain one bag of groceries per day and can choose from a variety of food and hygiene products. All they need to qualify is a student ID card.
The market-style pantry takes advantage of the agricultural-based campus, offering more fresh produce and dairy products than the average food pantry. This fall, the cupboard will launch its own garden on campus to offer more produce and herbs.
Now, Hartman works as an assistant at the cupboard, bagging groceries for students in need and connecting them with housing or other assistance they might be seeking. She plans to make food insecurity on college campuses her life’s work upon graduation, with goals of pushing for all higher education institutions to offer the resources that Fresno State does.
45,460Visits to Student Cupboard since it opened in 2014
“We feed K-12 students, we make sure that they all have food. We make sure our military has food. We make sure our prisoners have food. How come our college students are being left out?” Hartman said.
“It’s programs like these that give me the confidence to know that I can continue on with my education. Students do everything that’s asked of them to participate in the educated society. We have a responsibility to them to make sure that they have secure housing and food.”
In November 2014 – the month the cupboard opened – it served fewer than 200 students. Last month – during the summer, while classes weren’t in session – the pantry had more than 1,200 visitors. In about two years, the cupboard has handled more than 45,000 visits for help.
The cupboard is anonymous, working to protect the students who need its services, and the majority of its volunteers come from outside the campus – an effort to ease any shame students might have had if they had been served by their peers.
There also is the Catered Cupboard, a phone app that alerts students when there is leftover food after catered events on campus. The initiative prevents food waste and helps feed students at the same time.
More than 30 percent of Fresno State students are estimated to be facing food insecurity. Fresno County is in the top 10 percent of counties in the U.S. with the highest rates of childhood food insecurity, according to a 2016 Feeding America report.
You have to make a real choice: Am I going to stay in school and be hungry, or am I going to drop out and get a job so I can live?
Jessica Medina, Student Cupboard director
About 63 percent of Fresno State students are eligible for the Pell Grant, a federal program that helps students from low-income families pay for college.
The best part about the cupboard, according to Jessica Medina, coordinator of Fresno State’s Food Security Project, is its no-strings-attached policies. The people it serves could be your stereotypical college student subsisting on ramen noodles, a student waiting for a financial aid check to come in the mail or a student who is homeless.
The cupboard also helps many nontraditional students like Hartman by providing more products to students with dependents. About 40 percent of Fresno State’s new undergraduates in 2015 were over the age of 18, and more than 90 percent of students are commuters. While the cupboard served about 1,200 students in July, the number of “individuals impacted” was more than 3,400.
“Their stories range all over the place. We want them to be successful in their classes and graduate, and if that means providing for their basic needs, we can help do that,” Medina said.
“A lot of the studies are done around younger children, but I think the same goes for college students if they cannot focus on their coursework because they’re hungry. As a child, you don’t really have the option of dropping out. In college, you have to make a real choice: Am I going to stay in school and be hungry, or am I going to drop out and get a job so I can live?”
Fresno State student Daro Vann, 24, of Fresno, makes a trip to the cupboard almost every day and has been going since he enrolled in 2015. He gets bags full of microwavable meals and fruits, and it’s one less thing he has to worry about as he pursues a business degree.
“Poverty is something I dealt with most of my life. Every day when I go to school, I always think about what I’m going to eat,” Vann said. “I cannot study with an empty stomach, so I am very blessed.”
Back in class
Fresno State begins the fall semester Monday. Other key dates:
Fall finals: Dec. 12-15
Start of spring semester: Jan. 17
Spring break: April 10-14
Commencement: May 20