Pantry's New Location Means More Food Options for Students
By Eric Breier
Noemi Ramirez discovered a passion for the stock market through a high school competition in which she helped her school take second place.
Ramirez planned to continue working toward a career that allowed her to pursue that interest after enrolling at Cal State San Marcos, where she is majoring in business administration with an emphasis in finance and minoring in economics.
But seeing the impact the ASI Cougar Pantry has on CSUSM students has put her on a new path.
“I always thought I was going to go to work for a financial firm or something like that,” said Ramirez, who will graduate in December 2022. “But after joining this job, I actually think I'm going to go work for a nonprofit.”
Ramirez works with the ASI Cougar Pantry as a CalFresh specialist, helping students navigate the application process for receiving food benefits from the state. For the first time in her two-plus years on the job, she has been able to do so in a much-needed office space thanks to the ASI Cougar Pantry’s relocation to a bigger area in Commons 104 near the University Bookstore. Though the new location officially welcomed students on the first day of the fall semester, a ribbon-cutting ceremony will be held at 5 p.m. Thursday to celebrate the opening.
“It’s a lot easier for us to serve students, and we're able to provide a lot more food options with this larger space,” said Alondra Gutierrez, the ASI Cougar Pantry coordinator and a CSUSM alumna. “All of the students who come in are super excited to see the amount of food that's in the new pantry space. They get really happy when they see our fridge is full and produce is there.”
A 2016 survey showed more than half of CSUSM students reporting food insecurity, meaning they didn’t know when or where they would get their next healthy meal or they skipped meals because of cost concerns. ASI passed a resolution that year in support of creating a food pantry on campus to help students, and the pantry opened two years later in a small space in the USU.
The ASI Cougar Pantry is open to all enrolled students, who can visit once each week to pick up an array of free groceries. The pantry is open 9 a.m.-6 p.m. Monday-Thursday, and no appointment is needed to visit.
The new space has the look and feel of a grocery store, with shopping carts available for students to walk the aisles.
Before the pandemic, the ASI Cougar Pantry offered fresh produce pickups every Monday outside the USU because of space and refrigeration limitations. That’s no longer necessary thanks to the additional space.
“One of the biggest changes is being able to offer produce regularly because now we have more refrigeration space,” said Ashley Fennell, ASI’s associate director of government affairs and initiatives.
In addition to food, the new location includes toiletries and a diaper bank for students with young children. Menstrual products are expected to be available before the end of the semester.
Fennell and Gutierrez said they have other long-term goals for the pantry, including workshops on budgeting, healthy eating and food preparation, among others. But the biggest goal centers around a wellness and recreation center. ASI passed a resolution in 2019 in support of such a facility, and a feasibility report has been completed.
“Hopefully, we can have a one-stop shop for students’ holistic wellness,” Fennell said. “We're hoping to have that on campus in the next few years, and that will be the next big dream for the pantry. We would obviously move into that space and expand our operations to have a demonstration kitchen and a much larger space. Right now, we don't have freezers, so we’d like to be able to offer meats and other foods to support well-rounded, healthy, nutritious meals.”
Ramirez is working to help students access healthy foods through her work with CalFresh. Students need to meet one of six criteria to be eligible for CalFresh benefits, which include up to $250 per month for groceries for a student. Ramirez encourages all students to apply for CalFresh and points out that even if they’re not eligible, they still have access to the ASI Cougar Pantry.
“The new space is amazing,” Ramirez said. “Before, we didn't have an office space for CalFresh. I really advocated for a space with a closed door. I know that sounds very simple, but I really wanted students to know that they had confidentiality and felt they were in a safe space. So it’s great that we have this space now for CalFresh.
“But I'm also glad that we have the Cougar Pantry in general and that it feels like a shopping experience. Sometimes students just need help stretching their food budget or just need a little help in a week, so we really want to make it a nice experience.”
Eric Breier, Public Affairs Specialist
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