Changes to student basic needs services seek to broaden assistance on campus

Changes to student basic needs services seek to broaden assistance on campus

Photo Credits: ZACHARY LACSON / AGGIE

Aggie Compass sees four pillars of support to help students in need

The Aggie Compass Basic Needs Center at UC Davis is seeking ways to further help students with food and housing security, mental health referrals and financial success planning. The center, located on the first floor of the Memorial Union, has been operational for approximately two years and has expanded its services to include a full-time Yolo County CalFresh representative working onsite to help students with applications and extended collaboration with The Pantry. In the future, the Aggie Compass seeks ways to alleviate the housing crisis in Davis.

Leslie Kemp, the director of Aggie Compass, spoke about her work with the center and how the center was created.

“I was working in communications in 2014 when the call came from Janet Napolitano and the Office of the President to all the UC’s through the Global Food Initiative,” Kemp said. “I was fortunate to be at the table and proposed that we do some research, find out what barriers our students had for access to healthy foods and also if they knew about the resources we did have.”

During the two years that Kemp worked with the University of California Office of the President as part of the Global Food Initiative, four key areas were subsequently identified: food security, housing security, mental health wellness and financial information services.

Kemp did not initially envision the Aggie Compass as a physical space on campus.

“My proposal was to put together a website that was a portal for all the food resources we had on campus — affordable or free resources on campus, off campus and access to the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and CalFresh,” Kemp said.

From this initial work, Kemp continued developing resources for the four pillars of basic needs that the Global Food Initiative had identified. Kemp also talked about future projects The Compass was considering.

“We have our most resources because of the Global Food Initiative — under food because that is what we are working on for the [past] four years,” Kemp said. “Housing we will be looking into in this coming year. We are planning some things to provide rapid housing and emergency housing programs.”

Annie Adachi, a fourth-year biological sciences major and the student unit director of ASUCD Pantry, spoke about the recent relocation of the Pantry to the first floor of the MU and some of the unit’s plans for the future.

“The new location is much more accessible for students,” Adachi said. “When we were in the basement of Lower Freeborn, students would have trouble finding us because we were not visible [and] nobody can see the Pantry. Now that it is at the front of the MU, it is very accessible to students.”

Adachi mentioned that the new location creates a new customer experience for students coming to the Pantry.

“A lot of pantries in the University of California system have students walking in and shopping around like in a store and are retail inspired,” Adachi said. “So that is what the students had wanted for a long time. With this location, that enables us to have a more welcoming experience for students.”

With the move to the MU, the Pantry has seen a growth in the number of students using the Pantry.

“We see about 450 students daily, Monday through Friday, on average,” Adachi said. “Now our goal is we want to identify what the students’ wants are and what they liked most about us.”

Through research, the Pantry found that students were interested in more fresh food, and the Pantry has sought ways to offer this.

“We are trying to increase our distribution of fresh produce and bread products,” Adachi said. “We’ve seen that the students tend to come more often on days that we stock these items. So we are working now with the Yolo Food Bank to provide a greater variety of nutritious foods like that.”

Adachi explained she believes that the Pantry fills a vital emergency role when other resources are not available.

“In my [conversations] with students, they tell us how the Pantry […] was a safety net for them, and it did rescue them when they were in need [during] certain quarters — they had emergency needs,” Adachi said. “But of course, the resources can always be expanded, and I am getting a lot of feedback from the community about different ways it can be expanded.”

The Aggie Compass also has a full-time employee of Yolo County on site to help students with the CalFresh application process.

Max Vaca, a Public Assistance Specialist III for Yolo County and a former UC Davis graduate, is stationed in the Aggie Compass.

“I work for Yolo County full-time, but I am the only CalFresh representative stationed at the UC Davis campus,” Vaca said. “[This] gives me flexibility, because I am not just able to assist people in applying for CalFresh, but I am also able to complete their interviews and help them complete their applications onsite.”

Vaca said the first thing for CalFresh applicants do is set up an appointment with the Aggie Compass staff. This can be done from the Aggie Compass website or at their office. Students will be prescreened and if they appear qualified, students can then apply. Vaca said there are two processes to apply for CalFresh. The first is to apply online and the other is to meet with him at the Aggie Compass where he will provide information on the application process and conduct the application interview.

Vaca said that during the past two years, the number of students receiving CalFresh has grown.

“Obviously, the number of students who know about CalFresh and the enrollment has increased,” Vaca said. “From what I have seen on a day-to-day basis, there has been an increase in CalFresh approval due to the fact that we have partnered up with UC Davis […]  For example, with financial aid, they have included a link on their MyAwards page so students who may be eligible for CalFresh can see that, and they can click to apply online [with Yolo County] or to be sent to the Aggie Compass website where they can get more information.”

Vaca credits the increased visibility UC Davis has provided for CalFresh.

“I think [this increased visibility] is just not happening at UC Davis but all across the University of California campuses,” Vaca said. “Before there was a stigma behind CalFresh, but now I kind of feel that stigma is going away slowly but surely.”

The Pantry is a business unit of ASUCD, and each unit has adopted senators who advocate for the unit.

Rebecca Gonzalez, a fourth-year international relations major and adoptive senator for the Pantry, spoke about her plans for the unit.

“In my personal opinion, it is the most important unit we have,” Gonzalez said. “It provides a vital service for students.”

Gonzalez then talked about what she and the Senate would like to do for the Pantry.

“We want to see if we can fix the issue for summer staffing,” Gonzalez said. “There are also some minor nuances with the budget that we want to fix, so that the Pantry can provide its services as best as possible and be sufficiently staffed. I think that is something that we want to fix internally.”

The reach of food insecurity extends beyond the Aggie Compass. The Food Recovery Network organization on campus collects unused food from the dining commons and from retail markets on campus and delivers the food to the Pantry and homeless shelters in Davis.

Lucero Morales, a third-year biotechnology major, is an executive member of the FRN and spoke about their mission.

“Our goal is to reduce food waste on campus by recovering food and distributing it to homeless shelters and the Pantry [by] reducing that food waste, which is perfectly good food,” Morales said. “We recover two different types of food. The prepackaged food from the retail markets [on campus] are all packaged sandwiches, salads and pastas that are amazing to eat right now. And we deliver that to The Pantry, where students can go and get that sandwich and eat it right then and there.”

Morales talked about large quantities of frozen food they get from the dining commons and deliver to homeless shelters.

“We get from the dining commons frozen foods [such as] cut up vegetables or cut up chicken that can’t be served to students [in the dining commons] because they just made too much,” Morales said. “That we take […] to the homeless shelters because homeless shelters can use that to create nutritious balanced meals […] it is a full meal for them.”

Morales identified the key issues related to the distribution of recovered food.

“There is enough food grown and harvested for people, but there is that transportation issue to get it to the right person, or all the extra food [that] is too expensive to move to a homeless shelter or to the school pantry,” Morales said. “There is a need for a better system of distribution. I think that will happen soon. I think there is a hope that will happen soon.”

Morales said student food insecurity is a persistent problem in need of more awareness.

“I see that food insecurity for students especially in this community is going to be in the headlines,” Morales said. “I think more people will be aware of the issue. There is going to be a neccessity to address it.”

Written by: George Liao — campus@theaggie.org