Marisela Rodriguez, a Cal State Bakersfield student navigating her freshman year of college, sometimes goes home to an empty kitchen.

Between paying for books, tuition and living expenses, she doesn’t always have a lot of money for food — especially around the holidays. And her parents, both of whom are field hands who pick grapes, may help feed the world from the Central Valley, but they sometimes struggle to take care of themselves. Both have been laid off from work for the winter season.

“Food right now is tight,” Rodriguez said.

That’s why Rodriguez, 18, a first-generation college student, said she’s grateful that the university established a food pantry this year to provide students, staff and faculty members with a place where they can peruse the shelves for canned goods, hygiene items, and snacks and fill their grocery bags, without having to pay.

Rodriguez, who on a drizzly, overcast Friday before Thanksgiving picked up lima beans, canned green beans, pasta, diced tomatoes and Jell-O, isn’t just feeding herself — she’s helping to provide for her entire family.

Food insecurity is more common than many might think. Roughly 40 percent of all CSUB community members struggled to afford food at least once during the course of 2013, according to a study performed at the time by CSUB professor Aaron Hegde and graduate student Evabelen Ventura. Almost 700 students, staff and faculty members were surveyed.

‘THEY GO LIKE HOTCAKES’

The Food Pantry at CSUB was established this year to ease that burden on campus, especially among undergraduate students who can shop there once a week. Established in September with the goal of serving 100 students per month, the pantry received 70 students in its first hour. It has served more than 600 students in the last nine weeks, said Kassandra Hernandez, an AmeriCorps Volunteer in Service to America who serves as the Food Pantry coordinator.

When students walk through the door, they find shelves lined with Chewy bars, canned vegetables, potatoes, salad dressings, oatmeal, diapers, beans, and anything else that has been donated, much of which is supplied through Community Action Partnership of Kern and another contributing food bank in Fresno.

The traditional college foods usually go first: peanut butter, jelly, bagels and bread — anything that’s fast, cheap and filling.

“When we get in those microwaveable mac and cheese bowls, there’s no keeping them in stock,” said Sarah Medzyk, a graduate student leader who helps operate the Food Pantry. “They go like hotcakes.”

The most popular items this week? Canned veggies, creamy soups and just about anything that could be used to make green bean casserole as students opting to stay in the dorms this holiday prepare “Friendsgiving” meals, Medzyk said.

STARVING STUDENTS THE NORM

The pantry has been part of a larger effort through CSU to address food insecurity issues systemwide. CSUB also plans to construct a sustainable garden where students can plant and harvest fresh vegetables. Both the projects are being carried out with AmeriCorps volunteers.

Students struggling with hunger has become normalized as a part of the college experience, according to a CSU systemwide study commissioned by Chancellor Timothy White in 2015. Think of the quintessential “starving student.”

Their population is so vast and understated that the report describes them as being “invisible,” and that in many cases the same students struggling to afford food are living in unstable housing.

“You’d be surprised how many are homeless,” Hegde said. “When you have food insecurity there’s an impact on graduation rates and people not coming to class, or not being able to pay attention in class. It’s a very important aspect to the student experience.”

Many of those students surveyed by Hegde reported that, on at least one occasion during a 12-month period, they had to decide between whether to pay for health care, gas, tuition or food. Food often wasn’t prioritized.

“Our campus community generally comes from low-income households and they’re first-generation college students,” Hegde said. “The issues that came up weren’t necessarily that they didn’t know how to budget — that implies they had adequate resources. They didn’t have the resources no matter how well they budgeted.”

FOOD ACCESS A PROBLEM

Roughly 13 percent of respondents admitted they needed help from a food bank or kitchen, and 80 percent said they asked family members for assistance so they could eat.

Even though there are state programs to assist those in hunger, like CalFresh and the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, and food banks in town, like Community Action Partnership, few students surveyed were aware of them.

Which is why having a food pantry on campus is so critical, Hernandez said.

“It’s mostly a matter of access. Sometimes, our students do not have a means of getting to other areas like local food banks,” Hernandez said. “Having one located at CSUB makes it easier for students to access basic resources, considering they’re probably already on campus for classes.”

In other cases, budgeting proves difficult, especially for freshmen living on their own for the first time.

On the days that sophomore Alejandra Frausto isn’t volunteering at the food pantry, she occasionally finds herself wandering in as a customer. She had a college meal plan last year, but didn’t realize that it wouldn’t afford her three meals a day. Before the end of her first term, she was out of credit for meals, and she was begging her friends for extra credits, she said.

“Budgeting your money as a college student is so hard. It’s just like, I don’t know how to make it work. Sometimes I hate being an adult,” Frausto said. “I wish we had the pantry last year. It would have made things a lot easier.”

​Harold Pierce can be reached at 661-395-7404. Follow him on Twitter: @RoldyPierce.

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