Walk into any eatery in San Francisco, including USF’s cafes, and you will find that the cost of a full, healthy meal likely overshoots your budget. Go to a grocery store and compare the price of regular spinach to organic spinach, or off-brand cereal to Cheerios, and a discrepancy will become clear. Considering the high cost of living in the most expensive city in America and attending a private university, many students share concerns about affording nutritious food.
On March 4, a group of unsung heroes for food insecurity relocated USF’s food pantry from a closet space in the basement of Gleeson Library to the atrium. For the first time since the pantry’s opening in 2018, students receiving items at the pantry, as well as faculty, student, and staff volunteers were visible to passersby on campus.
The food pantry opens its doors every second Friday from 2:30-4:30 p.m, and all USF students, regardless of economic background, are invited to come and collect goods. “There were times when the line took an hour in the basement pantry,” said Gaurav Kalele, a first-year computer science graduate student. “Today I got through in maybe 15 minutes, and the space was so much brighter.”
While there is no official assessment of the breadth of food insecurity at USF, Kahanu Salavea, program assistant and coordinator of the food pantry’s operations, said that the decision to move into the atrium was based on increased student need. “The pandemic really catalyzed people’s need for our products,” he said.
Salavea said he came into his role at the pantry in 2019 and had just gotten into the groove of operations before the pandemic disrupted plans. While USF was remote, the pantry remained open and continued to distribute food in pre-packaged boxes to avoid close contact.
Erin Brown, a junior communication studies major and student assistant to the pantry, noticed the same shift in demand. “Our numbers [on distribution days] pre-pandemic were 50-60 maximum, and our first opening this semester was around 100 people,” she said.
Over the course of the early months of the pandemic, the increased need for pantry products was met with collaborative efforts from various departments across campus. While Salavea and Brown join forces in purchasing dry goods to stock the pantry using funding from the University directly, other products are made available by faculty members such as David Silver, chair of the environmental studies program and a member of USF’s food insecurity committee.
“In 2020, USF started a series of Star Route Farms faculty grants and I put together a grant that asked if we could have some of the finest organic produce grown there to distribute at the pantry for free,” he said. The grant money is used to purchase community-supported agriculture boxes (CSAs) from Star Route, but the farm also donates surplus produce to the pantry for each distribution day.
In addition to fresh produce and dry goods such as cereal, pasta, and snacks, the pantry also distributes fresh bread from Acme Break in Berkeley, purchased on a grant from David Holler, director of the Martín–Baró Scholars Program at USF. They also offer hygienic essentials like shampoo, toothpaste, and tampons, and have received donations in the form of water bottles and tote bags from organizations like SLE.
“The pantry probably saves me 50 dollars a month,” said TJ De Labeaga, a junior computer science major. “I got a lot of rice, cereal, spaghetti, and tomato sauce, so I’ll be covered for a long time.”
“I think a lot of people get embarrassed coming to the pantry, especially because this is a private school,” said Donielah Sharou, a senior mathematics major. “I’m happy to see that people aren’t seeing it as a bad thing, but rather as a resource.”
Andrea Rocha, pantry volunteer and associate director of off-campus student services echoed Sharou’s sentiment. “It’s really important that this new space isn’t hidden, because there’s nothing to be ashamed of,” she said.
Salavea and Silver meet once a month with nine other members of the food insecurity committee to brainstorm ways to improve the pantry. One initiative that they hope to highlight is a collection of student-made recipes that use pantry ingredients. “I come from a low-income family where the microwave was our stove,” Salavea said. “We want to have recipes that aren’t site-specific and use the simple ingredients we provide at the pantry to expand students’ kitchens.”
According to the San Francisco Department of Public Health, food insecurity affects one in four residents in the city. The pantry represents this statistic on a micro-level. “I think the pantry is a really small but inspiring sight that lights the way of what we could be doing, should be doing, and must be doing,” said Silver.
Salavea hopes to expand the pantry so that no USF student has to wonder where they’ll get their next meal, he said. “The pantry is like a seed – we have to nurture the seed to help it grow. Our community is helping this seed to sprout.”
Zoe Binder, a junior English and environmental studies double major, is the Foghorn’s opinion editor. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.