At a time when food banks are struggling to feed families, Valencia students decided to help – by helping their fellow students.
That’s why, in January, the Valencia Volunteers opened a food pantry on the West Campus. The group’s mission is simple: To provide non-perishable food items to prevent hunger in the Valencia community by helping homeless or hungry Valencia students.
Located in the student development office in 3-147, the pantry is open to students Monday through Thursday from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. and on Fridays, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. To receive food, students must bring their current class schedule and a Valencia student identification card. Each student has the opportunity to retrieve five items per day, from the pantry.
The pantry was the brainchild of Edwin Perez, a Valencia student who is trying to address the issue of hunger and homelessness on campus. After Edwin suggested the concept of a food pantry at a Valencia Volunteers meeting, Zia Ansari, Valencia Volunteers coordinator on Valencia’s West Campus, asked his team if they could handle the challenge.
Esperanza Perez, a student volunteer, offered to shepherd the project. She and Ansari and others debated whether to research the idea and find out how other colleges were handling food pantries. But Ansari decided to get started immediately.
“Instead of talking about it, I said, ‘let’s do it,’ “ Ansari said. “Instead of waiting to have discussions, we said, let’s just learn our way.”
After several months of operation, the volunteers have noticed some patterns. Although the donations from faculty, staff and students initially consisted primarily of canned goods and staples such as rice and canned beans, the students using the pantry seemed more interested in portable, instant meals– such as microwaveable cups of ramen noodles or a microwave-safe can of soup, along with snack-sized packs of crackers and cookies.
“A few students have taken home the canned items, but those haven’t gone as fast,” says Esperanza Perez. But when more portable lunch items were on the shelves, students snapped them up. “A lot of the students will come in and grab a granola bar for a snack and a pop-top can to microwave,” she said. Her theory? Many students who use the food pantry don’t have the money to buy lunch while on campus. So the donated food helps fill that need.
The food pantry helps a wide variety of students.
“Sometimes students come in for a one-time visit – because they don’t get paid until Thursday and they don’t have any money right now – but if they are chronic visitors, we want them to know there are other resources available,” Perez said. For those students, she posted a list of other community resources available, including information on obtaining food stamps, finding housing, and counseling services available.
Already, word has gotten out about the pantry, and students are turning to it when they need help. “We have some students who come in consistently and they’re very appreciative,” Perez says. Those students, she said, often come in with a bag and take home five items at a time.
Perez, 30, a business major, has long been interested in helping others. But it was her previous job – as the manager of an apartment complex – that made her volunteer to run Valencia’s food pantry. As an apartment manager, she saw families struggling with the recession and loss of work, so she helped organize a summer feeding program for the children who lived in the complex. She also filled one vacant apartment with donated food and clothes to help residents who were down on their luck.
The Valencia food pantry, she says, is an extension of that work.
“That’s one of the reasons that I came back to college. To do something important, to give back to the community and hopefully get into the nonprofit field,” Perez said.
To gather food for the pantry, Valencia Volunteers has positioned a box labeled Food Drive outside the Student Development office. Pantry volunteers say the most popular items are: individually-wrapped packets of microwave popcorn, Pop Tarts and granola bars; snack-sized packs of cookies, chips and crackers; and shelf-stable microwaveable lunches, such as Chef Boyardee microwave mac-and-cheese cups and Cup Noodles ramen.
“The feedback from the Valencia community has been great,” said Ansari. “So far, the food pantry has never been empty.”