Four in 10 UC students do not have a consistent source of high-quality, nutritious food, survey says

UC Irvine student Chris Tafoya admits that he’s often hungry and doesn’t eat the nutritious foods he should.

On his worst days, the 20-year-old Los Angeles native said he would simply go to sleep early to quiet the hunger pangs.

Other times, he would eat instant ramen for breakfast, lunch and dinner. No matter that each serving is packed with sodium and fat; at less than 50 cents each, it was affordable for Tafoya, who has balked at asking his low-income relatives for help.

“Cup Noodles saved the day,” Tafoya said.

His experience mirrors a new survey released Monday that finds four in 10 University of California students do not have a consistent source of high-quality, nutritious food.

The startling results from the survey of nearly 9,000 students, believed to be the nation’s largest look ever at campus food security, found that 19% of respondents went hungry at times. An additional 23% were able to eat but lacked steady access to a good-quality, varied and nutritious diet.

UC President Janet Napolitano, in conjunction with the survey’s release, announced a $3.3-million effort to expand the fight against campus malnutrition. Each campus will receive $151,000, adding to the $75,000 each received last year to build what officials say will be the nation’s most comprehensive, systematic plan to tackle the problem. 

Nationwide, 3 million college students lack steady access to nutritious food, according to a 2014 report by Feeding America, a national network of food banks. The 23-campus California State University system is also tackling the issue, recently releasing a survey of nearly 1,300 students, faculty and staff that estimated about one in four students experienced a shortage of nutritious food. 

“Food security is a critical issue not only on college campuses, but throughout our country and the world,” Napolitano said in a statement. “We undertook this survey, and are acting on its findings, because the university is serious about addressing real, long-term solutions to improve the well-being of our students.”

The survey also showed that 57% of students across the 10-campus UC system experienced problems finding sufficient or healthful food for the first time in college. That finding reinforced earlier indications that some students may struggle because they don’t understand how to manage their dollars or cook on a budget – skills they probably never learned at home or in school.

Among other findings:

  • Nearly half of undergraduates reported food problems, compared with 25% for graduate students.
  • Nearly one-third of those in need said they had difficulty studying because of hunger and no money for food.
  • About one-fourth said they had to choose between paying for food or educational and housing expenses.
  • Students without consistent access to quality food reported lower GPAs, averaging 3.1 compared with 3.4 for students without such problems.

The latest actions are part of UC’s Global Food Initiative, launched in 2014 to marshal university research to help communities here and abroad gain greater access to healthful and sustainable food. Working groups have been formed system-wide and at individual campuses to share information and plot strategies to tackle problems.

Many campuses have organized food pantries, emergency funding and “Swipe Out Hunger” programs that allow university students to donate their excess dollars on meal plans to those in need. Other actions include helping register students for CalFresh, the state’s nutrition assistance program and expanded public awareness campaigns about food resources. Several campuses are also working to help students over the long term.

UC Berkeley launched a class this past spring on how to cook healthful foods on a college budget and will bring “mobile kitchens” to dorms to teach additional students. The cooking lessons will be expanded system-wide, along with programs on money management, said Ruben Canedo, who serves on UC food security committees. 

“Food pantries are emergency support, but they do not solve the problem of hunger and malnourishment among our students,” Canedo said. “Our commitment is not just to name the challenge but to create an institutional model that does something about it.”

He added that Berkeley is aiming to take the work one step further by addressing the link between hunger and other basic needs, particularly housing. He said that tuition increases since 2008 and high housing costs around most of the UC campuses have exacerbated students’ inability to afford nutritious meals. 

Dominick Suvonnasupa, a Thailand native and recent graduate of UC San Diego, said he budgeted just $650 a month for housing in a market that commands hundreds more. As a result, he ran short of money for food and cut back to two meals daily.

Both Suvonnasupa and Tafoya from UC Irvine spoke of the shame they felt and reluctance to seek help. It wasn’t until Tafoya got a C in statistics – his first such grade in a college course – that he realized he needed to find help.

“I’m from a Latino household and if you’re a man, you handle your business and you don’t ask for handouts,” Tafoya said. “But once it began to affect my grades, I thought. ...‘I won’t be a fool.’”

Tafoya visited the campus food pantry and was gratified to receive a bag stuffed with canned fruits and vegetables, muffin mix, fruit snacks and other goods. “It meant the world to me to know help is out there if you just put your pride aside,” he said.

At UCLA, students opened a “food closet” in 2009 and have launched other projects, including a bulk-purchasing plan to sell organic food at lower prices and a partnership with a nonprofit to collect unused produce from farmers’ markets for campus needs.

The food closet, tucked away in the Student Activities Center, offers such items as chicken noodle soup, peanut butter, tomato sauce and beans.

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Gabriel Brenner, a 21-year-old art major, stopped by Monday to pick up a jar of peanut butter. For about two months in his junior year, Brenner came to the closet five days a week.

Brenner said he wasn’t shocked that more than 40% of UC students have experienced food insecurity. About the same proportion of students across the system are low-income and the first in their families to attend college.

“It’s comforting to know that there’s other people who are going through the same things that I have to go through relatively frequently,” he said, “but [it’s] also disappointing because they shouldn’t have to do that, especially when they’re coming to a world-renowned school like UCLA.”

Rosalva Isidoro, 22, a senior studying English who is an intern at the food closet, said as many as 15 students at a time have lined up for food. She, too, has picked up oatmeal, fruit and bread – sometimes canned chicken as well.

“Without this resource, I would be struggling financially,” she said. “Also, my health wouldn’t be the same. I would be more stressed out about school.”

UCLA’s food closet keeps transactions anonymous with no questions asked. But the gratitude of visitors is evident in an open notebook kept in the closet.

“Thank you for helping me feed my daughter through such a difficult time,” one note said. “Much love!”

Teresa.watanabe@latimes.com@TeresaWatanabe

Shane.newell@latimes.com@journoshane

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