“College hunger is not a rite of passage,” say signs around the PCC Cascade campus, urging students to apply for SNAP benefits and to access the school’s food bank.
“Recent surveys show about 65% of PCC students are food insecure,” Tyler Robin, a PCC student who manages the Panther Pantry, told The Skanner.
“It’s almost like you’re paying to be food insecure.”
Robin became the school’s first food pantry manager last year, picking up as much as 1,300 pounds of food at a time from partner organization the Oregon Food Bank, then “shopping the dock” -- or digging through more niche items -- to provide as many options as possible to the students that shop the small but packed room on the second floor of the student union. One student, asking to only be identified as Lydia, was excited to find well curated selections like goat cheese and a small packaged marionberry pie during a recent trip to the pantry.
The Panther Pantry is open five days a week to students with valid ID. So far this academic year, more than 2,752 students have accessed 26,754 pounds of food and counting on the Cascade campus alone. PCC-wide, more than 10,270 students have benefitted.
“It’s integral,” PCC-Cascade student body president Emily Jones told The Skanner. “We continue to see compression of minimum wage. Before, folks could work a minimum wage job and go to school on a Pell grant, and they were fine. Now we have students working three jobs, getting financial aid support, and still needing to use things like our pantry. Just with those increased costs those students are facing, we need to be able to continue to be expanding this program.”
Lydia described the pantry as “a lifeline” for her and her housemates, all of whom are students.
“A lot of our generation, we can’t get by,” Lydia told The Skanner.
“There’s no way I can live off an $11-an-hour job. And so if I’m not working for a future, then I’m not going to have a future. But you can’t work more than two jobs and go to school.”
Communications director RaeLynn Couture agreed.
“It’s the thing you’re getting up for, that education is how you’re going to get out,” Couture told The Skanner. “That’s why I can do all this homework by the light of my cellphone that’s dying.”
But Robin pointed out that no one can excel academically if they’re always hungry, and to that end, Fred Meyer recently gave a one-year grant of $300,000 has allowed PCC food pantries to increase hours, purchase freezers, and hire student staff. At Cascade, this investment has also improved the experience of accessing the pantry. Before, students lined up at a window and made requests, commissary-style. Scheduling was less consistent, and with students sometimes compelled to track down staff, many were deterred.
“It was hard for people who have food allergies, because it’s a really sensitive subject, and if you’re already food insecure, you don’t want to talk to anybody about what you can and can’t have,” Tyler said, adding that in the new, larger location, “there is more sense of self, having more autonomy over your own body and what you want to take yourself. There’s no judgment if you want to take some candy.”
In a room at the end of the hall, students are asked to fill out a questionnaire so the food pantry staff can better gage their needs going forward. Students are then able to choose what they need from shelves containing both familiar food pantry staples--canned soups, peanut butter, mac and cheese, tuna, rices, pastas, and beans--along with dairy-free milks, frozen salmon, frozen meals, and an impressive selection of cheeses. They are encouraged to only take about a bag full of groceries, but this is not enforced, and the philosophy behind the pantry is above all to fulfill food needs. Students who have dependents at home are encouraged to take more.
The pantry staff has also focused on stocking grab-and-go inventory for students arriving to a full day on campus hungry, and Robin is looking for more ways the school can serve students who are struggling.
“There’s a question on the survey about how many people have the opportunity to cook food, and it turned out that about 13% of students don’t have the ability, or have limited ability,” Robin told The Skanner, adding that as many as 15% of PCC students are homeless. With money from the Fred Meyer grant, Robin is excited to hire two more student positions that will not only help run the pantry more efficiently, but also provide two additional perspectives on how best to provide for students who do not have access to a kitchen.
“We have to be looking at historical systems of oppression that have forced marginalized communities into these situations where they are low-income, and we really need to be looking at how we address that through equitable access to funds and resources,” Jones said.
Jones added, “I am advocating that the board and the college support some of our general fund dollars into programs and resources that are integral to ensuring students can think in the classroom and not have to drop out. The student activity fee that pays for resources like our food pantry, that pays for our emergency grants, child care grants, that’s all funded in addition to tuition by students, and is run and delivered by students. It would be really great to see our general fund to put even a fraction of (its biennium) into these services.”
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