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It’s hard to think straight on an empty belly, let alone to study and learn, and yet studies have shown that food insecurity affects one-quarter to one-half of U.S. college students. At UC, efforts to combat this issue are being tackled on a systemwide level through partnerships between local campus staff and the Food Access and Security Subcommittee of the Global Food Initiative (GFI) — a systemwide initiative that unites researchers from across the UC system to address how to sustainably and nutritiously feed a growing world population by leveraging UC research, outreach and operations.

In 2016 the GFI released its first report on student food access and security, based on a 2015 study by UC’s Agriculture and Natural Resources Nutrition Policy Institute. This report acted as a catalyst for a national discussion and was the largest study on food security at that time. In 2017, their collaborative efforts on food and housing security were published in a second report.

Since the GFI’s establishment in 2014, the GFI has awarded $377,000 per campus to fund efforts in research, student support services, educational programming and engagement. As a result, today staff on all campuses provide basic needs resources to help students stay healthy and mitigate stress and other risk factors associated with food insecurity — from help accessing CalFresh food stamp assistance (accepted by many on-campus stores), to locally managed food-security resources. The efforts of the GFI’s Food Access & Security Subcommittee in conjunction with UC student advocates successfully lobbied the state legislature for permanent basic needs funding in 2019.

Bringing food pantries to campus

Connecting food-insecure students directly with nutritious foods through campus food pantries is an intuitive idea, albeit a relatively recent one. The first UC campus to introduce a food pantry was UCLA, which established its Community Programs Office Food Closet in 2009, providing free food for any UCLA student experiencing hunger or struggling to obtain food due to financial hardships. Students and community members are invited to support the food bank financially and by donating goods. In 2016, two UCLA students received a GFI fellowship for their efforts in partnering with local nonprofit Food Forward to gather fruits and vegetables donated by local farmers for distribution to organizations and families in need — including the CPO food closet.

Since students created the UC Santa Barbara Food Pantry (now known the Associated Students Food Bank) in 2011, food access efforts have flourished on the campus. The primary food bank receives more than 1,600 visits per week, and the campus has added additional locations to serve students living in the campus’s family housing areas. It also holds pop-ups throughout campus to expand visibility.   

Student support is key to campus food banks’ success. In 2018, the UC San Diego Student Foundation received a President’s Award for Outstanding Student Leadership after it raised more than $2,000 for Triton Food Pantry, stocking it with enough dry goods to last month. When accepting the award, Vice President of Development Sara Tan noted, “We don’t believe any student should suffer from food insecurity or have to wonder about when their next meal will be. Every gift counts, whether it be a dollar, because if we come together as a community we can make a real change.”

Volunteering at these campus programs gives students a meaningful opportunity to support their peers and to learn more about how food insecurity impacts their community. “My mother and father always shared their stories about having to carefully ration out their meals and having to go without food — which influenced my interest in helping out at the food pantry,” public health major Stephany Gonzalez told the UC San Diego newsroom in 2017. “By giving only one hour of my time per week, I was able to give back to my community which has given me so much since I started college.”

Students’ shared sense of accountability and ownership over the food pantries, and their continuing awareness and exposure throughout campuses, has mitigated the stigma that many students feel about being food insecure. Campus volunteers and staff work to make the experience of utilizing food pantries welcoming to students in need.

Check out this tour of the UC Merced Bobcat Food Pantry!

Growing food on campus, for campus

Campus efforts aren’t limited to distributing food: Many also grow their own food. It is perhaps not surprising — given its ranking as the top agricultural sciences program in the country and second in the world — that the 23-acre UC Davis Student Farm is particularly impressive. Through its student-led Fresh Focus program, produce from the Student Farm is donated to the campus food pantry and its Fruit and Veggie Up program, which provides free produce to UC Davis students in need. And regardless of need, all UC Davis students and employees have an opportunity to enjoy the fresh produce grown on campus thanks to the Student Harvest CSA, which offers weekly produce subscription boxes at a reasonable cost. Food is transported from the farm throughout the campus with a van purchased through GFI funding.

That said, at UC Davis, students do not necessarily need to patronize the farm to enjoy the campus’ abundance. Through the Edible Campus project, they are encouraged to see the entire UC Davis campus as an ideal space for beautiful, educational and edible landscapes.

In 2015, UC Santa Barbara alumnus Jack Johnson — a notable singer-songwriter, filmmaker and surfer — and his wife, alumna Kim Johnson, helped launch a Southern California Edible Campus Project. What began as the ceremonial planting of two navel orange trees whose fruit would support the UC Santa Barbara student food bank has expanded to the Edible Campus Student Farm, which officially opened this past October

“The Edible Campus Student Farm will play a vital role in our campus sustainability practices and in our role to address the food security and basic needs of our community,” UC Santa Barbara Chancellor Henry T. Yang said in thanking the Johnsons. “We are working to ensure that our students have access to healthy, sustainable foods.”

Kitchen classrooms

The stereotype of college students’ instant-ramen meals aren’t only associated with food insecurity — they’re also part of the stereotypical college experience because many young people come to college without the knowledge of how to cook simple, nutritious foods for themselves. This is perhaps doubly true for those who seek out healthy options in campus food pantries; though students might relish the idea of buying healthy and budget-friendly lentils, they may not know how to prepare them.

Once again, on-campus programs have sprung up to help students gain this vital life knowledge. One popular series was the quarterly Smart Eaters Life Skills Series at UC Irvine — a workshop series that addressed factors leading to food insecurity and taught students basic life skills, including nutrition, meal planning, grocery shopping, eating well on a budget, financial basics, cooking and kitchen safety. The UC Davis Student Health and Counseling Services currently operates a teaching kitchen, which provides an array of free, hands-on cooking classes throughout the year, focusing on seasonal and local foods. Courses are geared to providing the types of recipes students are likely to need, like Cooking on a Budget and 10-Minute Meals. 

Many campuses also offer a wealth of recipes on their campus food-security websites, including the UCLA Campus Well blog, which offers an array of Instagrammable meal options, including healthy plant-based nachos

Minimizing hunger by minimizing waste

One more way UC campuses are reducing food insecurity is by rerouting sources of available food, redirecting food that might be wasted to students in need. The UC Berkeley Food Recovery Coalition, established in 2017, is one such initiative. In fall 2018 alone, it recovered approximately 16,000 pounds of food, which was directed to the campus food pantry. Its helpful online guidelines instruct would-be donors on how to donate recovered food — including information about safe food temperature and transit. The UC Merced No Food Left Behind initiative and Food 4 UCSF Students app let students opt-in to text messages about available excess food on campus.

Connect with campus food resources

Use the links below to learn more about food security resources at your campus.




Los Angeles



San Diego

San Francisco

Santa Barbara

Santa Cruz

Stay up to date with news from the Global Food Initiative, including some of its student food-security achievements so far.

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