Supporting the REAL Basics of Education
In a small, unmarked storage closet in the Student Activities Center, as many as 40-50 students a day come to find one of life’s most basic needs: food. It bears the name “Community Programs Office Food Closet” and it is exactly that - essentially an on-campus “food bank” that is open to any student on campus, but is maintained particularly for students who are facing severe financial difficulties and may not be able to afford even the most basic food items.
It grew out of the inspired idea of one UCLA student and has now been adopted by institutions across the country. It is a simple and yet profound solution to a shocking situation as the state and national economic crisis has continued to threaten the educational futures of many thousands of students across the nation.
It was in Fall 2008, following the massive “economic downturn” earlier in the year, that the campus first began receiving anecdotal reports about students moving out of residence halls or apartments and “couch surfing” or sleeping in their cars, skipping meals in order to buy books, using their financial aid to help their families, and other such scenarios. The immediate administrative response was the establishment of the Economic Crisis Response (ECR) Team, which was created at Chancellor Block’s direction.
A less official response was the creation of the Food Closet in early 2009 through a collaborative effort between Abdallah Jadallah, a UCLA student who was President of the Muslim Student Association (MSA), and Antonio Sandoval, the Director of our Community Programs Office (CPO).
Abdallah recalls, “I was running into a number of students who were literally trying to make it on one meal a day because that’s all they could afford.” At the same time, he noted that many student events where some type of food was provided often had substantial amounts of catering unconsumed, with the leftovers simply being disposed of.
He says, “The first time it really hit me was when I was at a big student event. They had invited maybe 500 people and ordered Subway sandwiches for that size crowd. Maybe 200 people showed, and they were getting ready to throw away hundreds of sandwiches. I told them, ‘Wait, there are students on campus right now who can’t afford a meal. Let me take these back to the Student Activities Center’.”
Abdallah mentioned this situation to Sandoval. An unused utility closet near the CPO offices was identified, and unused catering from student events became one of the first significant sources of contributions to the “Food Closet.”
“That first year it was hard to keep it stocked,” says Marcos Osorio, an intern adviser and office manager at the CPO who doubles as the food closet coordinator. “The first summer the CPO staff just brought in whatever they could find in their own pantries.” However, the need for the Food Closet soon became clear, and outreach efforts in several areas developed. These included raising awareness within the campus community, outreach to local markets for donations of non-perishable items that were near expiration, and networking with various off-campus agencies.
This small closet in the basement of UCLA’s Student Activities Center soon became the source of a nationwide “wake-up call” on the issue of economic distress among college students and on the many invisible victims of the “economic downturn.” The Food Closet was featured in an article in the Los Angeles Times and another in The Atlantic magazine; received coverage by Diane Sawyer on ABC’s World News Tonight; was the subject of two programs on National Public Radio; and was even featured in a broadcast by Germany’s National Public Radio. Abdallah remembers, “After the first NPR broadcast, we began getting calls from all over the country, and great offers of help from large organizations in Los Angeles.”
Institutions throughout the state and across the nation have contacted CPO and Abdallah for information about steps that may be needed to start similar services on their own campuses. Campuses that have started or are working to start their own programs include UC Davis, UC Santa Barbara, the University of Southern California, Pasadena Community College, Southwestern Community College, Fresno State University, the University of Texas, and the University of Oklahoma.
Though some students have expressed a concern over being “stigmatized” by use of the Food Closet, the process is completely anonymous. There is no “sign in” book and no monitoring of use. However, there is a “guest book” in which clients can share their thoughts about the Food Closet as it affects their situations. Personal anecdotes provided by beneficiaries of the Food Closet are shown below:
“The hardest thing to accept is the notion that there are times in life when you become dependent on charity of others. I am a student who works 20 hours a week at Bruin Café, received $10,000 scholarship and got into the School of Engineering. Due to the recession, in the summer of ’09 I was unemployed for 4 months. I spend all my savings paying off my debt and my family’s debt (they also lost their jobs). Currently I am homeless, sleeping in my truck, attending school full time. If I did not have the food closet I would have to settle for the $1 dollar burrito at Taco Bell. I have no money to my name. I have no home. I am grateful to have the charity of others in the form of a food closet. Thank you for restoring my faith in humanity and for making it possible to continue working towards my dream of becoming my family’s first college graduate. Thank you.”
“I am an undocumented transfer student. UCLA has always been my dream, but it has been one of the hardest/or most challenging experiences. I receive no financial aid; I don’t qualify for any loans or many scholarships due to SSN. When Erick from the SAC offered the resources of the food bank, I was a little hesitant. I have always worked hard to earn what I have. But once coming in and eating, I have learned to accept that there are times where people need support and there are times where we need to step up to support. So I asked permission to make the food bank ‘welcoming.’ I brought postcards, a tablecloth and it feels friendlier to come in. I really appreciate all the donors’ contributions.”
“I have a father who’s been hospitalized. I am the breadwinner of my family. If not for the food closet, I would’ve quit school. Thank you. After rent, food is the biggest expense. The food on campus is too expensive.”
“Initially I thought I could handle school without eating; but then I felt anemic and started to pass out. When I heard about the food bank here at UCLA I was skeptical at first, but then I realized it was true. Thank you to all of you, the food here helps me in school by not hearing my stomach growl and having heavy headaches.”
“THANK YOU SO MUCH. This food closet means the world for a lot of us. It helps us get through the day here on campus and it also helps to remind us of all the good in the world. It can be so easy to forget that sometimes. So thank you—all of you—and don’t worry, we’ll definitely be paying it forward.”
In regard to the motivation that keeps the Food Closet in operation, Abdallah outlines the goals he and others started with and have maintained. He says, “We see the Food Closet serving two main functions. First, we’re able to provide food to students who have no food. There are many examples of students who eat once a day or students who eat only food they can get for free at events. We try to make their life easier so they can focus on school. Then we try to make more nutritious food available. The cheapest foods are often the least healthy. We try to provide the food closet with healthy options. And the help we receive both from on campus and off campus allows us to do more than we could’ve imagined.”
Abdallah also observes, “In the religion of Islam, we're supposed to help others. If (Allah) gives you a good, strong body, a strong mind, you should utilize it to spread good and to fight injustices.”
UCLA's Food Closet is always looking for donations. Here's a list of items that are always in demand:
- Canned meat
- Canned beans
- Peanut butter
- Nuts & Trail Mix
- Protein bars
- Snack bars
- Juice boxes
- Pretzels & Chips
- Toothbrush & Toothpaste
- Shaving items
- Hair & Body care items
- Mac and Cheese
- "Add water & heat" meals
For monetary contributions to UCLA's Food Closet, mail a check payable to "UCLA Foundation" to the following address:
UCLA Community Programs Office
Re: Food Closet
Student Activities Center
220 Westwood Plaza, Suite 105
Los Angeles, CA 90095