College students struggle to pick between buying groceries or paying tuition.
A junior at the California State University of Dominguez Hills recalls sleeping in her car. A freshman that stepped foot on her university campus for the first time said she has no clue how loans work. A graduate student remembers a decade-long journey of deciding between paying for tuition or dinner.
Students at the California State University of Dominguez Hills, or CSUDH, are leading the fight against hunger on their campus. On March 4, CSUDH students welcomed Reps. Nanette Barragán, D-San Pedro and Adam Schiff, D-Burbank for a conversation on food insecurity and the newly introduced Food for Thought Act of 2022. The piece of legislation will invest in free meal programs in minority-serving institutions and community colleges. The bill aims to help eliminate the barriers to hunger by increasing access to nutritious meals.
In a round table discussion, students took turns sharing their experiences with hunger. Adam Schiff called it a “systemic failure.”
“An 18-year-old shouldn’t be figuring out where to get a loan for basic necessities,” Schiff said. “It shouldn’t be so hard.”
As stated by CSUDH President Thomas A. Parham, an estimated 60% of students at California State University, Dominguez Hills face food insecurity. Two-thirds of the student body are employed, but when COVID-19 swept the nation, seven-tenths of students lost part if not all of their income. The bill contents it marks a step forward in securing students a college degree without the taxing worry of going hungry.
Eighty-seven percent of the student body are people of color, and 66% are first-generation, according to Parham, who said the university is in need of more funding for resources. “The students have talked about resource constraints,” Parham declared. “Admittedly, we are a resource constrained institution, we are constrained on budget, we are constrained on people, and we are constrained on space.”
The university pains a historical origin of resistance and uprising. Following the Watts Rebellion exposing a lack of opportunities for Black youth to gain access to higher education, then Gov. Pat Brown established CSUDH in the soon-to-be city of Carson, a city known for its diversity.
But, despite the Cal State University title, students claim the university does not receive the same funds, attention, or care as other universities in the CSU system.
“The minority in society is the majority here,” said senior Jonathan Molina Marcio. “So how is it with a campus with such rich culture, we have the less resources out of most of the universities on our system? So it begs the question of equity versus equality. I feel like our campus has so much to offer. But it’s always left in the dust because we’re always kind of forgotten.”
The students expressed their gratitude to the university for its efforts to help the student body but said it still isn’t enough. “I don’t have any judgment to cast on my university. If anything, I think our university does the best that they can with what they have,” said Nadia Al-Said, a junior at the university.
The Office of Sustainability and Basic Needs Program at the university provides support to students who face homelessness and food insecurity. The Basic Needs Program hosts food distribution events once a month. In mid-November, the program organized a walk to raise awareness for hunger. The campus urban farm associated with the Office of Sustainability harvests produce for monthly distribution to on-campus programs. But the university’s food pantry and emergency housing program is currently unavailable to students, two important resources for students on campus.
Many students shared their stories, recalling instances of having to choose between a meal or gas to attend work. Others explained the numerous times they had to drop out because they could not afford to pay for tuition and meals. “Those challenges at the time felt like world benders for me,” said David Saladaña, a graduate student and program and development coordinator for the Office of Sustainability. “On a week-to-week basis, struggling to see if I was going to pay for bills or pay for gas to go to work or eat.”
After the students finished answering questions about food insecurity on campus, Barragán and Schiff expressed their gratitude to the students for sharing their stories.
“I couldn’t help but think as I was listening to you, I wish every member of congress was listening to you hear what you had to say because so many of our colleagues have no idea and even those of us who do, need to be reminded,” Schiff expressed.
But one student shared the clash between romanticizing and glorifying one’s suffering. And how it shouldn’t take students to share their trauma for people to care.
“We have to sit here and share our stories and open our hearts out for people to listen to us and take notice of us, I really appreciate that you think we are resilient and that we have persevered, but it shouldn’t have to be so, it shouldn’t have to be that way,” Al-Said said. “And we shouldn’t have to be praised for our suffering and we shouldn’t glorify our own suffering that we have experienced in life, in situations that we didn’t have control over. All we are trying to do is better our futures and better our life because the reality is without our degree, what are we going to do to make ends meet?”
If passed, the Food for Thought Act will unlock assistance for updating or purchasing critical food infrastructure and funding current or new programs fighting hunger.
“We need our students to be able to focus on studying and doing well, not worrying about their next meal,” Barragán said.
Under the act, grantees will collect data on the severity of food insecurity on campuses to measure the expansion of anti-hunger programs. The students hope the bill will be the extra help they need to combat hunger on campus and other campuses across the state.
“It is what it is, but we are actually doing something here at Dominguez,” Saladaña said.