A 2012 financial aid system glitch at Washington State University that delayed the disbursement of millions of dollars in grants and loans also revealed just how needy some students really are. Many of the same students who relied on that money to pay for tuition and other expenses told school officials about being forced to make some very hard choices.
“Students not eating or not being able to feed their families because they needed to buy books” was the kind of anecdote that started making the rounds, according to Kafiat Beckley, supervisor of the Cougar Center, which houses student services offices and programs at Washington State University Vancouver.
Beckley pointed out that WSUV’s nonresidential campus attracts a student body that’s older and more experienced — and busier with jobs, families and other adult responsibilities — than your typical “college kids.” And, Beckley said, those nontraditional students are likelier than others to have been hit hard by the Great Recession, experiencing layoffs and foreclosures, financial crises and other fallout.
Beckley said that 82 percent of undergraduates at WSUV receive financial aid of some kind, and 65 percent of those who fill out a federal financial aid form — the dreaded Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA — qualify for Pell Grants. That means they are at or below the federal poverty line, Beckley said.
“It became clear to us as financial aid was delayed that some of our students face food insecurity on a daily basis. Hunger can have a huge impact on a student’s success,” says a recent memo to faculty and staff from Chancellor Mel Netzhammer.
So, student services personnel have launched a discreet little on-campus food bank: the Cougar Food Pantry. The pantry is tucked into a side alcove in the Cougar Center and it’s really little more than a storage area for shelf-stable goods that can sit in room-temperature cabinets and not go bad for a while. Except, the donated supplies in the pantry don’t sit for long.
“Since we opened the Cougar Pantry we have discovered just how great the need is among our students. Use of the pantry has far exceeded what we anticipated,” Netzhammer wrote.
Between its opening in the fall of 2012 and the start of this term, Beckley said, the Cougar Food Pantry has received 267 different requests for food assistance.
Those requests are fielded and filled via an online form that can be completed anywhere, discreetly — from the comfort of a student’s home to the lobby of the Cougar Center. Either way, the process is anonymous other than supplying a first name and a confirming email. Applicants are asked to check the types of items they want, how many people they are feeding, if there are any dietary restrictions and what’s the best date and time to stop by and pick up a food bag. Beckley and her staff at the Cougar Center receive the request and take it from there, and — generally speaking, supplies permitting — the food bag should be ready to go at the agreed upon time.
Has anyone who isn’t really needy taken advantage of this charitable system to score some free chow? On the contrary, Beckley said, she’s more aware of hungry students who can’t bring themselves to ask for a handout. There are guidelines for figuring out just how much goes in each bag, she added, and an overall limit of one request per student per week.
Abuse of the system is not a big concern, she said; stigma about needing help is.
“The students who do use the pantry are very appreciative, believe me,” she said. “We would like to encourage more to use it if they need it.”
Most of all, she just wants everyone to learn about it. “We hope to build awareness on campus that it’s here,” she said.
You can help
The Cougar Food Pantry is for students only and isn’t supplied by the central Clark County Food Bank, which feeds many other satellite pantries that serve the public, Beckley said. It’s entirely dependent on donations from the campus community — and from others, like local businesses, that Beckley wants to get interested this fall.
A “Fill a Bag, Feed a Coug” food drive is set for the WSUV campus on Nov. 10, Beckley said. Paper bags will be distributed more or less everywhere, and the campus community will be encouraged to stuff those bags with the nonperishable staples that food banks always hunger for: beans (canned or dry), boxed milks (dairy, soy, almond,) canned fruits and vegetables, canned soups, canned tuna, healthy cereals, instant potatoes, macaroni and cheese, pasta and pasta sauce, peanut butter, rice — and snacks such as crackers or granola bars.
Of course, you don’t have to wait for November to make a food donation. Bring your donation to the Cougar Center any time. Beckley is interested in expanding the pantry’s offerings; her wish list includes greater access to fresh produce, a campus garden and healthy cooking classes for people on a tight budget.
An official at Clark College said there are occasional, seasonal food drives there, but no permanent food pantry for hungry students.
For more information about the Cougar Food Pantry at WSUV, visit http://studentaffairs.vancouver.wsu.edu/cougar-food-pantry or call Beckley at 360-546-9593.