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Cal State Fullerton’s permanent food pantry lets students ‘shop’ with dignity

Breakfast items, grains and pasta are in stock at the newly opened Titan Student Union food pantry at Cal State Fullerton.
(Kevin Chang / Staff Photographer)

The Cal State Fullerton food pantry isn’t just about feeding hungry students. It also aims to empower them.

“This has always been a project that the student leaders really wanted to offer. It gives more dignity to the students to select their own food items,” said Cristina Truong, assistant director of Titan Student Union Services & Food Pantry.

Cal State Fullerton’s permeant food pantry opened in late August, and the experience is designed to feel more like a grocery store than a typical food bank.

“They feel more empowered to come in to the food pantry to pick the food that they want, as opposed to giving them a bag that we made,” said Truong.

Since opening, the pantry has had 2,400 visits, a number Truong said is conservative considering the campus is only at 60% capacity.

“Next semester we’ll have 80% of the students back, so the need will be much greater,” Truong said.

The pantry has been a longtime goal for the student body, who played a large role in making it possible.

Fresh fruits and vegetables available at the newly opened Titan Student Union food pantry at Cal State Fullerton.
(Kevin Chang / Staff Photographer)

“This is something that has been in the works for multiple years now, we are just the ones that get to see the fruits of the labor from admin way before us,” said current Associated Student Inc. President Josh Mitchell.

Although CSUF has offered a monthly mobile food pantry outside the student union in the past, students found the food ran out quickly, and there was a pressing need for a more permanent solution.

In the fall of 2019, the Associated Students Inc. board of directors unanimously passed a resolution to establish a permanent food pantry on campus. The 2019-20 Associated Students president and vice president, Aaron Aguilar and Mansi Kalra, ran on the platform of establishing a permanent food pantry.

The pantry space, which formerly housed catering company OC Choice, was made possible by donations from the Kroger Co. Foundation in partnership with Ralphs and the National Assn. of College Auxiliary Services.

“After the resolution passed it was all about finding the location and getting the funding so we are thankful to Kroger for their donation for making this all possible today,” said Mitchell.

Now Mitchell and his colleague, Associated Student Inc. board of directors chair, Mary Chammas, are tasked with getting the word out.

Associated Students Inc. President Josh Mitchell and Board Chair Mary Chammas inside the food pantry.
Associated Students Inc. President Josh Mitchell, 22, and Board Chair Mary Chammas, 21, pose inside the newly opened Titan Student Union food pantry on Wednesday at Cal State Fullerton.
(Kevin Chang / Staff Photographer)

“I am excited that we have this on campus, I think it’s long overdue,” said Chammas. “We are the last CSU to have it on campus, and I am excited with this year’s leadership to sustain it, promote it more, work with other stakeholders on campus and get it to the best it can be.”

Both Chammas and Mitchell recognize the effects food insecurity can have on a student’s academic career.

“Those who are food insecure have a higher risk of diminishing academic returns,” said Chammas.

She also points out that more than half of Cal State Fullerton’s students are nontraditional college students.

“So they are either single parents, they are financially independent, they have full-time jobs and are part-time students and because of COVID, food insecurity has doubled for our college students,” Chammas said. “We are here to support our students, and this is just one of the many way that we do that.”

Mitchell agrees the food pantry can help elevate some of the stress nontraditional students carry.

“In a utopian society, you would want a world where the only thing students have to worry about when they are on campus is what is going to be on their exam in a couple hours,” Mitchell said. “You don’t want them worrying about housing or food or mental health crises. This is just one step that we are proud of.”

The pantry is open Monday through Friday and resembles a grocery store, with shelves lined with dry goods, snack and fresh produce that primarily comes from Second Harvest Food Bank, which makes weekly deliveries.

“We have a lot of staple food items, like canned vegetables, canned beans and canned meats such as chicken and tuna. We also carry rice, pasta, occasionally we have cereal, oatmeal and lentils,” said Truong.

Rather than getting a bag of selected goods or donations, students get a basket and walk through the pantry to select their items just like they would at a grocery store.

Dairy products stored in a refrigerator at the newly opened Titan Student Union food pantry at Cal State Fullerton.
(Kevin Chang / Staff Photographer)

“You can tell they love that feeling of it being in a grocery store, they feel a little bit more empowered,” said Truong.

The pantry offers milk, eggs and deli meat as well as fresh produce like bananas and apples. A freezer section has frozen vegetables and frozen meat.

“We also have a snack section, which has granola bars, little individual bowls of cereal and peanuts and such,” said Truong.

The pantry is open to any enrolled CSU student.

“We have an appointment system online where students sign up and fill out a one-time questionnaire and from there can book appointments every week.”

Shopping is done by appointment only, with no more than three shoppers allowed at a time to maintain anonymity for those using the service.

“Some students feel shame about being food insecure,” said Mitchell. “And so here they have autonomy and privacy, while still using the services.”

Students can take five to 10 items per week, depending on inventory.

“We still check them out to just check innovatory, and we bag all their grocery and they go on their way,” Truong said. “We also play music to make it feel a little bit more welcoming.”

Truong said they still plan to host a mobile food pantry, which will be rebranded as a Pop-up Pantry next semester for students who still don’t feel comfortable coming into the food pantry.

The Titan Student Union food pantry at Cal State Fullerton is now open for service.
(Kevin Chang / Staff Photographer)

“We are going to be giving out food in front of the Titan Student Union on Thursday, just so we can reach more students.”

Mitchell said he knows they still have work to do in terms of ending food insecurity for students, but the student body is proud of this progress.

“It is one small step, and I feel like there is a lot of potential for the future,” said Mitchell.

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