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Lack of Centralized Food Pantry Leaves Students Hungry

It’s past midnight on a bitter November morning, and Kristina Sawyckyj is in her wheelchair, studying in one of Seattle Central College’s doorways. She’s pulling an all-nighter for her upcoming exam, using the light from the doorway and the school’s Wi-Fi to study. Sawyckyj, pronounced “suh-vit-ski,” has been living in her van for the past three-and-a-half years and has been a full-time student at SCC for 3 of those years. Not only does Sawyckyj maintain a 3.96 GPA, but she’s currently serving on the Disability Rights Washington Mental Health Advisory Board, The State of Washington Behavioral Health Council and the Transit Riders Union—all while attending SCC full time. If she’s not at school, odds are she’s at a community meeting.

“Right now, unless you’re on welfare, TANIF, have children, been in foster care, I cannot go into low-income housing because I’m a full-time college student.” She claims the Department of Veterans Affairs has told her to drop out of college for that very reason.  Sawyckyj refuses to drop out of school and is adamant about pursuing a career in Disability Rights Law. Currently, her most difficult challenge is finding food. It’s not uncommon for her to go three days without eating over an academic quarter.

Jason Sencion, a student at SCC who is currently transitioning out of homelessness agrees, “Weekends were the hardest because a lot of food banks are closed.” Recently, Sencion was staying at the Downtown Emergency Service Center’s (DESC) Queen Anne branch, which is currently housing 100 people. The beds are sprayed weekly for bugs and there are three showers for 100 men. The quality of sleep is poor, as there’s always someone yelling or fighting. On average, Sencion was getting only a few hours of sleep.

Limited Resources on Campus

According to a 2015 study done by the Wisconsin HOPE lab, two out of three community college students are food insecure, approximately half are housing insecure and 13% of students are homeless. These findings are based on a survey of more than 33,000 students at 70 community colleges in 24 states. Their research found that 25% of community college students qualified as having very low food security, which they define as a decrease in quality, variety, desirability and quantity, as well as disrupted eating patterns due to inability to access adequate food.

While SCC doesn’t have a centralized food pantry, there is a small pantry on the third floor of the BE building, in the veteran lounge. Operation Sack Lunch (OSL) is currently delivering 12 hot meals a day to the veterans lounge, four days a week. Kerry Holifield, Student Veteran Support Specialist, says, “There wasn’t even once that we had a substantial amount of food left. Two hours after it gets here, there isn’t any left.” The Veteran Support team has served over 350 meals since the middle of fall quarter.

In addition to OSL’s deliveries, the Veteran Student Resources (VSR) has been receiving regular donations from the Jewish Family Services (JFS) food bank on a weekly basis. At the moment, JFS is willing to provide as much food as the school is willing to take, but Holifield only has so much room.

While the Student Resources Center has an extensive list of local food banks they can refer students to, each bank comes with its own set of barriers—some require an address, some only let you visit once a week. However, there are schools out there with legitimate food banks and you don’t have to go far to find one. At South Seattle College, Phi Theta Kappa is currently running a small food pantry on campus. According to their web page, they have served “approximately 400 students and distributed 2,000 food products and toiletries.”

In order to gain access to this food pantry, each student must sign in providing their zip code, student ID number, proof of attendance at South and a signature for liability reasons. They are open only on Mondays and Thursdays for two hours at a time and are always staffed with at least two people. One worker checks students in, and the other keeps track of what students are taking. They have several shelves for snacks, drinks and microwavable meals. But students are only allowed to access the pantry once a week, and can only grab one item per shelf—not nearly enough food to last a week. A student would have to visit more than one pantry to get an adequate amount of food.

As for SCC’s pantry in the veteran lounge, students are able to stop by whenever they please and grab whatever they need—no sign in necessary. The VSR wants to keep this pantry as low barrier as possible. As of now, there are some non-perishables such as pasta, rice, ultra-pasteurized milk, beans, vegetable oil, cereal, canned foods and a fridge full to the brim with eggs and bread.

Sawyckyj, however, is diabetic. She has to keep a strict diet. Because of her current living situation, she can’t store any insulin or perishable foods. “I would give hugs to someone who would take a dozen or two of those eggs and boil them for me,” says Sawyckyj. Of course, she’d have to keep them in the fridge at the veteran lounge, but at this point, anything helps.

Although the pantry is located in the veteran lounge, it’s accessible to all students. Holifield started the pantry because he noticed a substantial amount of student veterans weren’t getting enough to eat, “We’ve seen the problem and said, hey, let’s solve it, for our population, but we know that it’s a bigger issue and that it’s all around campus.”

Jason Sencion claims that there are five other homeless students in his English class. “You wouldn’t be able to tell, it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re a dirty, grungy looking person. It could be anybody you meet,” he says.

Getting a Handle on Hunger

For the past 4 years, Greg Hinkley, a sociology professor here at SCC, has been having his students focusing on food-related issues in the form of integrated assignments. As you can imagine, he had a lot to say on the issue. “If the institution really values learning, we’ve got to get a handle on the hunger problem. That really is one of the most crucial issues that isn’t really talked about here on campus,” says Hinkley. From his experience here at SCC, Hinkley estimates that roughly 60% of our students are food insecure sometime during their stay at Central. However, this has not been confirmed by Student Leadership, which is currently looking into the amount of SCC students struggling with food insecurity.

Hinkley says, “This is your education and your money. If you guys decide to use the money in a different way than it’s being used right now, then by damn, say you want the money used a different way. You have that access. You have over a million dollars across the street. Do you want more speakers to come? Or do you want to feed folks? There’s ways of thinking through that or at least saying, no, as a community we really need to be focusing on providing breakfast for whoever wants breakfast at 6 o’clock in the morning. What would that look like, what would that cost?”

On January 31st, there was a meeting at Student Leadership regarding food insecurity. The meeting was comprised of members of the Associated Student Council and faculty from Student Support Programs. There was discussion of creating a centralized food pantry in the BE building. While the veterans lounge has a food pantry, it’s not the school’s official pantry. Holifield and a few others are currently working on a funding proposal for Student and Activities Fee Committee (S&A). The deadline for this proposal is at the end of winter quarter. If approved, the funding wouldn’t be awarded until next January. If the deadline for the proposal isn’t met, they’ll have to wait another two years to acquire funds for a centralized food pantry. Regardless of whether the funds are granted, Holifield will continue to expand the pantry in the veterans lounge.

One idea proposed at the meeting was to have instructors keep food in their offices for hungry students, essentially creating a bunch of miniature food pantries until a centralized food pantry could be established. I followed up with Omar Osman, the Associated Student Council’s Executive of Administration, to learn more. Osman had this to say, “If this food pantry is taking too long, how about bringing food like snacks or apples or something like that, in every office, where students, if they go they can just pick up if they are hungry and can eat something like that. I don’t think it’s so hard to do that.”

I asked Hinkley what he thought of the idea. He said, “Faculty aren’t in their offices all of the time, it’s not just—for me, this sounds like it’s a really poorly set up idea, it’s not well thought out.” Hinkley believes that if they were really serious about providing snack foods for students, they’d at least put them at The Buzz coffee bar, or Information Central. He doesn’t believe that this would come anywhere close to meeting the needs of hungry students. Hinkley says, “If Faculty had vouchers, where you could discreetly give them and say ‘go get breakfast,’ that would be more meaningful than an apple that might have gone bad in my office.”

Osman is only allowed to work 10 hours a week. Considering his other duties as the ASC’s Executive of Administration, he’d only be able to allot about three hours a week towards a new food pantry. Constructing a centralized food pantry would take more than just three hours of work per week. Osman said, “There are, I believe 34—36 colleges, they all have food pantries. It’s only Seattle Central who doesn’t. We should be ahead of other schools, not behind them.” We are currently investigating the claim that SCC is the only school in the state lacking an official food pantry.

Moving Forward

Carra Chubb, an AmeriCorps member who is currently working with Student Support Programs, was also present at the meeting. Her role here at Central is to enroll students in food benefits through DSHS. However, DSHS doesn’t cover the totality of one’s nutritional needs. Last year, she successfully launched a food pantry at Shoreline Community College and believes that we do in fact, have the resources to launch a centralized food bank here at SCC. Chubb believes that a centralized food bank would be a great development opportunity for running a volunteer organization on campus.

Chubb hopes to expand the pantry outside of the veterans lounge, so students don’t feel like they’re taking food away from the veterans. Keeping that in mind, Holifield says, “Everyone is welcome. We won’t turn anybody away. We’re here to help people,” Holifield is currently accepting non-perishable food donations from students and encourages students to volunteer if they want to help.

When I asked Sawyckyj what motivated her to get up each and every day and do it all over again, she said, “My professors make my day, I’m blessed. 98% of all my professors have been phenomenal. I’ve had some of the best professors ever here. One professor was like, ‘you know Kristina, I’m in public housing, I’m a part-time faculty person. I understand what you’re going through.’ They make it real. I would have never known there was a professor who lives in Seattle housing, you know as a part-time faculty. You know, they make it real and they connect with you.”

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  1. […] far, that work has included a look into student food insecurity, international student labor issues, and tuition inconsistencies for asylum seekers in Washington […]

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