One of GardenWorks’ earliest community partners is the College of DuPage. As an educational institution in the heart of DuPage County, COD provides a broad range of programs including degree programs in Horticulture and Sustainable Urban Agriculture. In 2017, GardenWorks installed 5 raised bed gardens as part of its Community Garden Support program. GardenWorks Project also serves on the College’s Horticulture Advisory Committee and has partnered with the Horticulture, Culinary Arts, and the Homeland Security Education Center programs for the 2018 and 2019 Harvest Against Hunger fundraisers.
For a number of people, some of the best years of their lives were during college. A change of environment, newfound independence, the beginning of years-long relationships and the occasional shenanigan often mark this memorable time. Many of us may not have had to consider having regular access to food as part of those years. A year after the first state-wide lockdowns were imposed, we have an opportunity to reflect on how much the virus’ impact has taken a toll on our lives and the organizations that serve our community.
The normal bustle of the halls at College of DuPage with about 12,000 students, faculty and staff passing through daily was gone, replaced by the cold greeting of empty, dark halls. During the weeks that followed our drastically limited return to ‘normal’ in August 2020, the campus Fuel Pantry continued to serve the COD community. As our ‘new normal’ carried on, clients’ weekly visits to the Fuel Pantry persisted despite having a fraction of students on campus. In this interview, I sat down with Shannon Hernandez, the Advisor of College of DuPage’s ‘Fuel Pantry’ to gather some insight about the pantry’s origins and food insecurity on a college campus.
*Interview has been edited for brevity.
Can you tell me a bit about your role at the College and what the ‘Fuel Pantry’ is?
I work in the Office of Student Life as Coordinator and as part of my role, I am also the advisor to Phi Theta Kappa. Each year PTK international headquarters recommends that they do a college project. In the fall of 2016 they talked to the administration and asked to look into food insecurity and we see if our students are food insecure and what we can do for them. So the college project coordinator, the student, was in two classes that also had to do a service learning project. And the classes worked on the whole thing, they did the research, what it would be called and the logo. They went the whole route. And that's how the name ‘Fuel Pantry’ came about; they saw it as students getting brain fuel. The students wanted it to be 100% stigma free. We don't care if you don't have money today. Or if you haven't had money for a month; we don't care at what point you are. If you're hungry, you should be able to get food.
They went to the administration, and through Student Life then were able to open the pantry in its location in December 2017, which took about a year and has existed under Phi Theta Kappa until this last year.
Was there a particular model that you focused on or do you know if there are other college campuses that do this?
Hernandez: Elgin Community College actually opened theirs, I think about a year before we did. They connected with them and looked at some different models. Normally when we're on campus, there's a point system and we got that model from other campuses. Students can come in and they can choose 15 points a week; everything has a point value. We've tweaked it along the way. It was always going to be that the students get to choose; that was important to us, and it's kind of exciting. We just read an article last week, and only about 20% of pantries are actually the client choice model and that's the best model and we were doing that from the beginning.
How would you describe your clients? I know at the time the Fuel Pantry opened it was to anybody with a College ID. Do you see anyone outside of
Hernandez: So there's definitely been a shift. Our Fall 2019, as far as client numbers, was huge. We were at 325 a week. I think it somewhat continued though we weren't here very much when you think about [the fact] that we didn't start until the end of January. So it was only about six weeks. It was crazy.
The majority of those clients were traditional aged students. We were feeding a lot of students who had to make a car repair and didn't have food that week because they didn't have money. They weren't getting paid or maybe were challenged as far as providing lunch, but when they went home, there was going to be some sort of dinner for them. So it was a lot more grab and go type of things.
But, immediately, when we started back in June, we were feeding families and they were big families. Today we had 33 clients and I would say at least five of them have six or more people in their family. We don't have the points system anymore; they request food online. There's a list of about 20 items and they could go on and click what items they want. And then we determine if they have two people, how many of these items do they get versus eight people? Even the kinds of food have changed a little bit. Basically it's just limited now because we have to be able to manage the shopping. We ended up focusing on the things that would help families be able to prepare meals.
Would you say there is a difference between a community college having and addressing food insecurity versus your traditional four year school?
Hernandez: I think there are a couple of differences. When you talk about our athletes, there is a huge difference there. If they were at a four-year, they'd have a meal plan. Specifically the nature of our football players, from my understanding and talking to a few of them when we were opening, is that they get recruited from outside this area. So they're coming here, living in an apartment, they've never been away from their family. They don't know how to cook. They don't have money for food. So all these factors play into that food insecurity.
The other thing is our student population; it costs less to go here. So our students in general probably have less money than in a four year school. A lot of times they're not living at home anymore or they've left their family. I know we have traditional age students who when we ask ‘are you supporting other family members’, they're listing their mom and their dad and their siblings because that's the role they have. They're coming to college, they're going to school, but they're also working to help support their family. So it's both.
We have the garden on campus that provides produce for the pantry. How did that get started, which came first and then how did that all come together?
Hernandez: Maybe three years ago they approached Student Life and said, 'You know, we've been given some space. Now we have a pantry on campus. What if we got together and all of this produce went to the pantry?’. Through that collaboration, we were able to hire the advisor for the Phi Theta Kappa project, and she started at 10 hours a week and she's amazing. We were able to increase her hours to 29 and basically the [community education] farm existed, the garden existed prior, but then came back in a new form and kind of merged together.
Even now that we can't be outside, we have hydroponic towers that are in the greenhouse that she's growing. So we're still giving out vegetables and she's already started seeding for next year. Horticulture is letting us use the high tunnel, so we'll have a whole bunch of spring crops. As far as having an organic gardening system, it's amazing to have her on board.
How did the students respond to that being an option?
Hernandez: The students are so excited when they come in and are able to get that produce. They love it. I mean, they really do love it. Today I think she had 20 bags of stir fry greens and they were all gone first. It's great, and it's high quality organic produce. It's definitely stuff our clients would never be able to afford in their current situations.
March 16th, we all were told we had to work from home. We thought we'd be back within a matter of weeks; you came back on campus for the first time in June. What happened in that March to June timeframe?
Hernandez: So in March, when we found out we were going to close, we sent something to all of our clients in 24 hours. It was a really short amount of time. I sent out an email as soon as we found out, I said ‘We're closing. You can come and take as much as you want.’ We probably had 15 or 20 clients come in and we tried to empty the shelves totally at that point. It was really just communication at that point. We immediately communicated with all our clients, ‘You know, we are closed. We don't know when we're opening again’. We gave them as many resources in the community that we knew of. Unfortunately, not all of our clients qualify to go anywhere else.
We did not open again until June. And the only way they would let us open in June is as a curbside model, but not accessing the building. So I would shop, store it in my car and bring it here and we would unload it. And then we would distribute it and then we'd do it again next week.
How would you compare numbers pre COVID right around when you started to come back? I remember right around Thanksgiving was probably the most people we ever screened to work at the pantry.
November and December, you guys would have seen a lot of us. November, December, we did holiday pickups. The other ones really are based on when the faculty communication goes out, then our number goes up and then it levels off. That's one of the things that we haven't been able to figure out.
We do have some of our clients who are very regular and now only come for three weeks or so, so I'm not sure what it is. We do give them a fair amount of food. So maybe we're giving them enough to last. We are going to be doing surveys, so hopefully I will have an answer to that question in the future.
What do you wish people knew about either the issue of food insecurity on college campuses or the fuel pantry at the college itself?
I think it's just the impact that it has on the students. The feedback that we get is like this is somewhat life-changing and that it does take a little of the burden off of them. I think a lot of people probably don't know that we exist solely on donations.
The impactful thing is so many of these clients think somebody else needs it more than them. They truly do need it themselves, but they're so willing to go without, for another student that they don't even know. When we did our food drive in December we had two of our clients who came through the food drive and donated food, just their giving nature.
What attracts you to working with the Fuel Pantry, aside from the student group?
I just love that I can be that resource. The feedback we've gotten from pantry clients were just like, ‘Oh my God, this is amazing. I couldn't do this without you guys. This is great the college offers this’. It's just that connection with them and being able to provide the service and my response is, ‘I am so happy that the College lets us do this for you guys’.
Just think, you have counseling services on campus. We have financial aid people who would help you, if you didn't understand how to do that. This is a service that this campus has provided to you and if the service that you need food, then it's just part of the process.
What are some future plans for the Fuel Pantry?
One of our hopes is expansion. We have gotten very positive feedback from an organization that is interested in giving us refrigeration and freezer space. We have dreams of expanding the garden. There's this whole area we've heard that the grounds people don't want to mow; it's a perfect spot for us to expand.
We definitely want to look at kind of expanding our internship program because we know that there probably are some students who are eligible for SNAP benefits, but they don't know how to navigate the system. We really would like to train somebody that's able to help students with that. It’s just really an amazing project. I'm so happy the College lets us do it. I think there's so much potential.