Orange and L.A. County community college students impacted by food insecurity, but to different degrees
Students, staff and faculty at Orange County’s Cypress College were outraged by changes to their school’s food program enacted in September. Backlash stems from the new daily food allowance’s inconvenient process to retrieve and return a meal card required to purchase food each day. Diners at the Charger Cafe, the campus cafeteria, who wish to access the service must pick up a meal card preloaded with $12 under the new rules. The card can only be retrieved between 7:30-9:45 a.m. and 10:45 a.m.-1:45 p.m, and must be returned by 3 p.m. each day.
The meal card system was actually put in place to alleviate problems, not cause them. Students and others raised concerns about limited meal options, no dedicated dining space on campus and long wait times in line for food—for some up to an hour. Even with the reopening of the Charger Cafe post-pandemic, it’s still not enough to service the college’s 14,000 hungry students efficiently.
Stephen Schoonmaker, interim vice president of administrative services, provided data via email on the number of students served. The week the new changes took effect approximately 5,970 students were served.
On Sept. 25, the first day of new changes, the wait for food reached 90 minutes by 12 p.m. Some students arrived late to classes while others, according to Schoonmaker, got out of line because they did not want to be late to class.
Skipping meals is a problem for any student, and Anneliese Esparza, who uses the Charger food pass said, “There [was] no point to the change other than to make it more difficult for people to get food.”
Technical theater professor Donny Jackson, said the impact on curriculum has been challenging. He explained his students can’t perform on an empty stomach. “If we have students that are starving, that’s a problem. It affects teaching because they’re distracted, they can’t focus, they need something to eat.”
The need for the program is there, and this service is not only for Cypress students. It’s also extended to students enrolled at nearby Fullerton College and North Orange County Continuing Education students who take courses on the Cypress campus.
BY THE NUMBERS: Community college students’ basic needs
More than 66,000 students from 88 California Community Colleges responded to the #RealCollege survey in spring 2023. This is representative of about 4% of the state’s 1.9 million community college students, but trends nonetheless worry school officials.
- 2023 survey respondents were twice as likely to be older than 30, and more likely to have received a Pell Grant compared to 2019 respondents.
- Two out of every three California community college students grapple with at least one basic needs insecurity.
- Nearly half of California community college students are food insecure, almost 3 out of 5 are housing insecure, and about 1 in 4 are homeless.
- Food insecurity rates have declined slightly since 2019, from 50% to 47%. Reductions are likely related, related to the concentrated efforts by colleges to tackle food insecurity (via food pantries, food distribution days, etc.).
Connecting hungry students with resources
According to Colleen Ganley, basic needs specialist with the California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office (CCCCO), 21 schools in Los Angeles County and nine schools in Orange County receive funding from the state for basic needs services. Food services include pantries, distribution events, physical and e-gift cards, direct aid and partnerships with local community groups who assist with CalFresh applications.
CalFresh is California's implementation of the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. SNAP provides financial assistance for purchasing food to low-income California residents. The CalFresh application process has additional eligibility requirements for students. So, assistance from local community organizations who partner with colleges to provide services helps students tremendously.
A tale of two counties
In fall 2021, CCCCO collected data from different colleges statewide through the #RealCollege survey, the nation’s largest annual assessment of basic needs security among college students.
Twenty-one community colleges submitted state-level data about their current food programs, including colleges in L.A. and Orange counties. Patterns in L.A. versus OC data quickly emerged in regards to current food distribution programs as well colleges’ plans to increase food security.
In Orange County, Cypress, Fullerton, Orange Coast, Santa Ana and Saddleback colleges all provide food pantries, gift cards, and want, or have, assistance available for students who are seeking to apply to CalFresh.
In Los Angeles County, College of the Canyons, East L.A. and L.A. City colleges have a similar buffet of assistance, but they provide more services overall. In addition to food pantries and gift cards, Los Angeles schools also hold food distribution events with some events even accessible as a drive-thru service. These colleges’ catalogs also inform students about assistance for CalFresh applications and direct aid.
While these programs are all great ways to combat the issue of student food insecurity, some of these schools still struggle to meet students’ needs.
According to the California Chancellor's Office, 82% of Cypress College students were economically disadvantaged, defined as a family income 150% below the federal poverty line compared to 66% of economically-disadvantaged students statewide. Cypress College students not only struggle with food insecurity but other basic needs such as housing.
The increase of basic needs services and making sure they reach the communities that in most need of the services is vital to student success, CCCCO basic needs specialist Ganley said, “Course success rates for students receiving basic need aid is 66%.” The only way for these programs to improve their services is by involving “...all the people on campus, up to the administration. Everyone has to be on the same page about the issue. Those are the most successful programs.”
Today, the underlying technology for some Orange County colleges’ gift card distribution system, including Cypress and Fullerton colleges, is not working. Long wait times persist during peak hours of the day due to lack of staffing. In order to combat that, Fullerton College hired student workers to make the lines move quickly and painlessly. The lack of space for students to eat in the cafeteria is a “premium service,” said Ganley, that not all colleges have the means to solve quickly even if they’re aware of the issue.
Though faulty equipment is an issue for some, programs at other OC schools are increasingly successful, according to the 2022 Affordability, Food and Housing Access Taskforce Report. In 2021, Santa Ana College established the Thrive Center, which focuses on “supporting the healthy wellbeing of a diverse community of learners.” The center is staffed with student service coordinators and helps students build strong foundations physically, mentally and academically.
Administrative representatives know it’s important for students to receive these services, especially those from historically-marginalized racial/ethnic groups. “The state of California’s most recent budgets recognize food insecurity as a key issue,” reads the Taskforce Report. It further explains how the state provides additional resources for the system’s colleges to begin addressing the need.
Schoonmaker, Cypress College’s interim VP for administrative services, said the system is not going to settle for students going hungry.
Students are speaking up, too. Marty Florence, an acting major at Cypress, said, “The meal program has been problematic for way too long now.” Students shouldn’t have to worry about such a simple service, she continued. “Fix this!”