As families prepare for their abundant Thanksgiving feasts, Pasadena City College’s Lancer Pantry is again calling attention to an overlooked population it has discreetly served for nearly two years on campus: Students who suffer food insecurity.
Citing recent studies that show that up to 14% of local college students are homeless, and another 22% do not have enough food to sustain a healthy life, the campus has created a program to directly help those on campus with a food pantry that provides bags of groceries and consistent, healthful snacks.
The rising costs of living in the area have compounded the housing problem for students, and the number of the homeless is likely even higher than what is being counted, said PCC food pantry coordinator Nick Tobin. Often, students living in cars, couch surfing among different residences or spending the night at an occasional shelter don’t recognize they are homeless, he said.
“A lot of those kids have been skating to get by, but they don’t consider themselves homeless,” said Tobin, who was hired as a student to help get the pantry off the ground. “But what we do know is that these same students have much less access to food, food storage and food preparation, and this means they often go long periods between meals and also are often vitamin deficient in the meals they can procure.”
Although it began in January 2017 as a small operation with a grant, the Lancer Pantry has multiplied to meet demand, and now serves more than 600 students per week with about 2,000 pounds of food. Under the pantry’s open-floor concept, students taking one unit or more at PCC may shop for groceries twice per week, choosing up to eight staple items and one cold and one frozen item, including dairy products and frozen meats or vegetables. The pantry also provides snacks on a daily basis, which include a dairy product, a granola item, a piece of fresh fruit and a drink.
With help from the PCC Foundation, the pantry was able to secure a partnership with the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank, which supplies about 75% of the pantry’s total food needs. The remaining 25% however, is left to the pantry to source on its own through donations, food drives and local community partners.
“If you don’t have food and you’re hungry, you’re not going to have success academically or in any technical or trade capacity — it just becomes a vicious cycle,” said Tobin, noting that it took time for the pantry to work among students who felt shame over their need.
The pantry advertised through fliers on campus, indicating where students could find it. But it took time to build up the clients, he noted.
“We would have students come by and just look in and say they were checking us out for a friend,” he said. “We’d welcome them, but they wouldn’t come in. It took some students up to three times before they felt comfortable accessing the services — it really wasn’t enough to just have the pantry on campus.
“We had to work to let people know that everybody goes through — at some point in their life — a point of difficulty, and that there’s no shame in it. You are still a valued member of society and things will get better. That’s the crux of what this program is,” Tobin said.
According to another study, a 2017 survey of students at California campuses by the Community College Equity Assessment Lab, about 32.8% of students surveyed have experienced housing insecurity, with another 12.2% experiencing food insecurity. Those students are “significantly less likely to perceive a sense of belonging from faculty, to feel welcome to engage inside and outside of the classroom, to report having access to student services, and to see campus services as being effective in helping them address their needs.”
Those numbers vary between colleges and cities, but PCC officials say they know the housing crisis in the surrounding Pasadena area has hit its students hard.
PCC philosophy professor Joseph Hwang, who volunteers at the pantry to restock items a few hours a week, said he is a big believer in the program.
“I’ve known students who are struggling. I had one who was missing class, and upon asking, found out that her family had been evicted. Another young man I know is sleeping on the couch with [people he barely knows], so it’s not like he can go into the kitchen and make his food. One of the things they really worry about is where to find a regular meal,” said Hwang, adding that the pantry has grown in popularity. “The more discussion there is around this issue, the more students realize they’re not alone. They can see it’s not a personal reflection of a failure or weakness, but more of a systemic problem.”
The pantry at PCC began as a grass roots effort — almost a project in social research, after a student in a social studies course did a class presentation on student homelessness and food insecurity, having been inspired by a friend experiencing both. That presentation bloomed into an ad hoc committee, which eventually was able to procure a small grant to kick off the pantry. The school, although considered a “space-impacted” campus, dedicated a small corner in a building’s second story, just above the food court area. In came the PCC Foundation, which as a nonprofit was able to amend its articles of incorporation to better serve the students on campus. The foundation’s new bylaws allowed it to better support students’ holistic needs, such as food, housing and emergency services, and also freed up the foundation to sign a partnership with the L.A. food bank.
PCC Foundation Executive Director Bobbi Abram said the efforts have been well worth it, as the foundation supports students’ academic success. The No. 1 goal is to keep students in school, she noted.
“Our mission is to ensure that students’ holistic needs are met, so that when a spouse loses a job, when something unplanned happens, they don’t have to drop out of school. We’re trying to help students to hold on during the tough times and create a way for them to tie those loose ends together and not get derailed when life gets in the way,” Abram said. “I think the pantry will be a revolving door for people. For some students it will sustain them while they’re at PCC, but for others it will just see them through a short period while they’re having a tough time.”
On a recent Friday before Thanksgiving, students at the well-stocked pantry streamed through, quietly choosing items and transferring them to their backpacks outside.
Jennie Le, a third-year business student, said she has been using the pantry for nearly a year. She heard about it through a friend who knew Le was struggling to make ends meet.
“The pantry has helped me in many ways, but especially to cut down on food costs,” she said, noting that the savings have helped her put more money toward tuition, materials and textbooks. The rising cost of gas has also hit her hard in her commute from El Monte. “I tell other people about the pantry all the time; I tell them that if they’re struggling, they should really come and check out the resources here.”
The Lancer Pantry relies in part on community donations to meet the needs of its students, and Tobin emphasized some items they can always use are paper plates, bowls and utensils, as well as clean plastic or paper bags for students to transport their groceries. To make monetary donations, visit the PCC Foundation website at pasadena.edu/foundation, press “donate now” and specify the Lancer Pantry fund name (Student SVS – Food Pantry Fund). To contact the pantry directly, email
firstname.lastname@example.org or call (626) 585-7264.