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CSUB kicks off week dedicated to hunger and homelessness

Twice a month Cal State Bakersfield hands out food not just to those who are working or attending the university but anyone who needs it. This Monday, drivers snaked around the parking lot in front of the Icardo Center waiting for volunteers to load weeks of food in their back seat or trunk or flatbed.

These distributions are a way of giving back to the residents of the place the university calls home, said Jason Watkins, the assistant director of basic needs for CSUB. If the community isn't thriving, the university won't do well either, and Watkins knows many in the community don't have enough to eat.

"We try to support the community the way our community supports us," he said.

Monday's food distribution kicked off a week of discussions around hunger and homelessness in the college community, not just for CSUB but for the entire California State University system. The Chancellor's Office and other campuses, including CSUB, will host events this week to discuss the importance of meeting basic human needs for the students — and the communities where students live, too.

"You’re in school to get a degree, but it’s hard to get a better life if you’re going through these struggles," said Krystal Raynes, a senior at CSUB.

Raynes said she's struggled with food insecurity, homelessness and mental health issues. She said any one of these issues can instantly "tank" a student's GPA, set them off course and drive them into student debt.

That's why she has lobbied as one of two student trustees on the CSU board to request $15 million in funding dedicated to Basic Needs. This week the CSU is set to vote on a budget that requests that funding from the state. In previous years that money was allocated as a one-time expense, but she says that it deserves regular funding.

"It’s always a fight to get it in the budget," Raynes said.

That funding helps make it possible for students to get the help they need when they're struggling. CSUB also has a pantry open to students, staff and faculty that also includes fresh produce that comes straight from the university's edible garden. And dorms are available to students who need emergency housing. Staff work with students to help them find something solid while they are secure in student housing.

That's been especially important during the pandemic. Watkins said a lot of people were teetering on the edge of precarious state before coronavirus hit. The university has been doing food giveaways for a few years and the numbers had been going up. When the pandemic hit, staff increased the number of distributions from once a month to twice a month.

"It was growing before the pandemic, but then everything went into hyperspeed," he said.

A survey of more than 76,000 people by the California Student Aid Commission found the effects of the pandemic on students were drastic: 70 percent of students surveyed lost some or all of their income, a quarter dropped courses and half changed their living arrangements.

At the peak of the epidemic, CSUB would pass out 340 boxes in two hours. Those numbers have gone down. Staff now pass out about 200 each month, Watkins said.

The menu changes a bit each week, but each recipient gets fresh produce plus a box of dried and canned goods thanks to the Community Action Partnership of Kern. On Monday, volunteers handed out apples, potatoes and pomegranate juice. The box included split peas, tomato sauce, rice, mashed potatoes, sliced peaches and rice. 

"I'm so grateful," said Mark Torres, a student at CSUB.

Torres has been relying on unemployment to help him make ends meet while he goes to school, since jobs have been scarce. But federal unemployment benefits have dried up, and most of his income goes to rent and a car payment. He's worried it won't get easier with coronavirus case rates going up locally. He said he was just discussing with his roommate how they would pay for groceries this month when he learned about the food distribution from the college. It was one less worry, thanks to his university.

"They have my back," Torres said.