The USF Food Pantry, which provides free food and toiletries to students, opened for the first time five years ago on Sept. 21, 2018 in a closet in Gleeson Library’s basement. Since its inception, it has grown substantially, finding a new home in the library’s atrium and providing fresh bread, produce, and nonperishable goods to the USF community every other Friday.
The pantry’s produce tables are staffed with volunteers through the Martín-Baró Scholars program. “Our class has had a food justice focus for the last several years,” said David Holler, the director of the program. “We have the distribution side, and I think it’s so wonderful that it’s student to student contact.”
Alexa Quizon, a first-year psychology major and a Martín-Baró Scholar who volunteered at the food pantry on Sept. 15, said her favorite part of being there was the “human interaction, and just seeing all of their reactions. There was this one girl who was like, ‘I’ve never tried an artichoke,’ and I said, ‘You should try one.’ So I gave her a few, and she just looked so happy trying a new food.”
Abbi McDonnelally, a junior environmental studies major, said to the Foghorn after picking up food from the Sept. 15 pantry, “I think [food insecurity] comes up in conversation more with my friends, just because maybe my family would be more ashamed of it, and my friends are all going through it together.”
Food insecurity is defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as experiencing “reduced quality, variety, or desirability of diet,” with or without “disrupted eating patterns and reduced food intake,” depending on severity.
Price Little, a senior French studies and fine arts major, said to the Foghorn after taking his pick of the fruits and vegetables at the table, that since starting college he’s eaten “much less meat — eating less in general, just because it’s so expensive to buy groceries or eat out.”
Little is not alone in his experience. A 2020 literature review published in Advances in Nutrition found that U.S. college students experience food insecurity at an average of 41%. “We’re one of the richest countries in the world, and the hunger that is going rampant through our country — it’s astonishing,” said Aja Holmes, assistant dean of students, director of community living and director of the food pantry.
Supplying the pantry with produce is a group effort, which at the pantry’s inception was headed by the USF Community Garden. The garden’s production was stymied in the early parts of the pandemic — although it is active again, Star Route Farms (SRF) has become the pantry’s main produce source. However, the funds to access SRF’s food don’t become available until October. To fill the gap until then, the pantry has begun working with the student organization Food Recovery Network (FRN).
David Silver, associate professor and director of the environmental studies program said that he expects the pantry to have both Star Route Farm produce and produce from FRN starting in October.
“The mission of Food Recovery Network is to fight food waste and feed people,” said Malia Boksanski, a senior environmental science and environmental studies double major, and FRN’s president and donation leader.
The fruits and vegetables that FRN brings to the pantry come from The SF Market, a wholesale produce market that has operated in the Bayview for 60 years. Every Friday morning, the market contacts Boksanski about available produce and asks what FRN wants. “Usually I say we want everything, and we pick it up,” she said.
“It’s produce that they couldn’t sell, whether they had too much of it, whether it had some imperfections and looked a little like ugly, up to supermarkets’ standards. It’s totally fine produce, but they’re planning on throwing it away,” Boksanski said.
Setting up the food pantry takes time. Every other Friday, FRN uses the University Ministry’s vans to pick up the food, then arrives at Gleeson around 9:30 a.m. to drop off produce — five hours before the pantry opens to all students. “Then we’ll get here about 1:30, 2 p.m.,” Holmes said. “We’ll come and look through the produce, and then we’ll use those baskets up there to make it look nice and pretty.”
Then, Events Management & Guest Services drops off tables to stage the produce on, which Holmes and her team set up outside the side door off of the room hosting nonperishables.
The food pantry’s community extends beyond those who work and study at USF. Julie Orio, vice president of student life, has brought her two sons to volunteer with her at both pantry days this month. Last Friday, the boys, who are in grades four and five, brought two of their friends to volunteer with them, still in the crisp white button-downs they wear to Saint Brendan’s Parish School. “We are doing our best to instill in them the importance of being people for and with others and helping one’s community,” Orio said in a statement to the Foghorn after the Sept. 15 pantry. “The kiddos are learning a lot about food insecurity — and food recovery — and how they can hopefully be part of larger solutions.”
Part of the Martín-Baró Scholars’ involvement with the pantry is through the use of its grant money to supply bread from Acme Bread in Berkeley. Holler said, “I insist that it’s fresh, by the way — I don’t use the day old. I get offered that a lot, and I just think it’s important symbolically that we’re offering fresh bread.”
The pantry’s current budget is $20,000, up from the $500 it first opened with in 2018, according to Holmes. Despite the budget increase, nonperishables ran out during the pantry’s first day open this semester on Sept. 1. To ensure nonperishables are available to all students who attend the pantry, Holmes has implemented a labeling system on the shelves where they’re kept in the back room of the Gleeson Library Atrium. “I categorized — take one from this shelf, two from this shelf,” she said. “Because we’re gonna give you pasta and rice, you can take one of each, as opposed to two rices and two pastas, to try our best to get through the line.” Last year, there were 1,815 student visits to the pantry.
Holler expressed his hopes for the long-term improvement and expansion of the pantry. “In an ideal world, we would have student employees who would be helping with all of this, too,” he said.
Holler is looking to other community presences to improve the pantry further. Although no official deals are currently set, he said, “We’re in talks with Trader Joe’s, and they would like to support us, too. So I feel like we’re in the nascent stages of something that’s going to be sustainable, that’s long term. We’re trying to build the bridges — also with the San Francisco-Marin Food Bank, and to have deliveries come here.”
Niki Sedaghat contributed reporting to this story.