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UW pantry proves food insecurity isn’t an isolated problem

The University of Washington Food Pantry operates every two weeks on the campus. (Contributed)

If you can afford to go to college you should be able to afford a meal, but that’s not true for students on a number of college and university campuses across the country including the University of Washington.

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The university has a reputation as being elitist or too affluent to understand struggle but that’s not very accurate.

“It’s not like college students don’t have a history of being hungry. There’s the stereotype of students eating ramen and trying to stretch their dollar but this was something very different,” Dr. Marisa Herrera said.

As the executive director of UW’s Kelly Ethnic Cultural Center, Herrera meets students who are from many walks of life. She remembers one particular exchange clearly.

“They were telling us at five o’clock, six o’clock in the evening when they would come get free food at a program that that was the first time they had eaten all day,” Herrera said.

Students using financial aid are more at risk for food insecurity.

“There’s not enough money for students, you know, even if they did get all of their academic needs met what about housing? As a full-time working professional I struggle with the cost of housing,” Herrera said.

But food insecurity is also not isolated to students on financial aid. There’s also the delicate group of students who come from families that, based on income, can afford college but do not qualify for financial aid.

“You talk about stereotypes, there’s a stereotype that international students have a lot of money but I’ve seen them struggle. We’ve seen students that actually come together because they’re part of a group of people that look out for one another and look out for each other and so they’ll cook together and financially try and tie themselves together so that they can make it,” Herrera said.

Tuition, housing, and childcare are just a few of the outstanding expenses that face modern college students today. Many students also work either on or off campus, but it’s still not enough in a city as expensive as Seattle.

Take, for instance, the University of Washington’s own calculations for how much it’ll cost you per year to be a Husky. It shows that housing food combined will cost more than the tuition itself. It’s about $25,000 a year to attend the UW, which breaks down to about $10,000 for tuition and more than $11,000 for housing and food combined.

Student Taylor Herring has definitely gone hungry.

“A month, two weeks before finals week your dining account is about empty so that’s something I experienced pretty much every quarter living in the dorms,” Herring said. “It’s not one of the things you think of when you’re applying to the colleges is ‘how am I going to get meals?’ — it’s kind of the last thing on your mind especially when you come into it and you’re given a dining plan so you don’t think that you’re ever going to have to worry about it.”

Knowing what he knows now, Herring joined the effort to open the University of Washington Food Pantry along with Herrera and other student and faculty partners. It now operates every two weeks on the campus.

Preya Saxena is the Student Food Pantry Coordinator.

“We’ve had pantries that have had 60 people, we’ve had pantries where we serve 100 people. There’s a pretty wide range.”

She says they try to operate in a way that helps students overcome the stigma associated with food banks. The pantry can accommodate appointments if a student would like their privacy while selecting food and they offer culturally relevant foods — Kosher, for instance.

“Most of what we provide is shelf-stable though we do have a partnership with the University of Washington farm that allows us to have access to fresh produce and we do have that from time to time,” Saxena said.

Any student or faculty member is welcome, too, as there is no income requirement to go through the line.

Fall 2016 was the first full semester with the food pantry in operation and Herrera says program continues to expand as word spreads.

“Right about October/November, it was one of our first food banks that we’d had this year, I came out into the lobby … and I saw a big line of folks. We have a lot of events that happen at [the Kelly Ethnic Cultural Center] and so I thought that people were lined up waiting for a program and event and I had to ask … I asked our staff ‘what are these people waiting around for?’ And they’re like ‘oh, they’re here for the food bank.’ To me it was unbelievable,” Herrera recalled.

Unbelievable even to the person who first believed a campus like the University of Washington needed this. She turns to the Canary in the Coal Mine story to help people overcome their conflicting feelings abut an elite university having to operate a student food bank: shouldn’t they know how to budget? how can they afford college but no food?

“If the toxicity levels in the mine got to high the canary would die, right But nobody is blaming the canary for the toxicity levels in the mine. You blame the mine, right? And I think that people should start looking at it systemically like ‘what is going on in the city of Seattle – what is going on with the state of higher education that is causing our students to struggle? To breathe? To live?” Herrera said.

The next Food Pantry day is Jan. 25 inside the Kelly Ethnic Cultural Center.

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