With Nothing To 'Fall Back On,' Santa Monica College Food Giveaway Helps Some Students Survive

Santa Monica College President Kathryn Jeffery helps during the college's food pantry pop-up. (Santa Monica College)

The COVID-19 crisis is forcing California's colleges to get creative about solving a longstanding problem that is quickly getting worse: students not having enough money to buy food. On Thursday afternoon, Santa Monica College held a drive-through pop-up and gave away:

  • 250 bags of non-perishable goods
  • 500 ready-to-eat meals
  • 250 cupcakes

"The goal we accomplished today was making a connection outside of just the academics, touching people's lives in a different way," said Santa Monica College President Kathryn Jeffery.

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The pop-up was for students at this college who showed proof of enrollment. Jeffery talked to students as they waited in their cars. She had a message for them.

"You truly matter to us, you are why we're here... we want to support you."

Donations and funds from the Santa Monica College Foundation made the giveaway possible. The college wants to hold these pop-ups weekly, with approval from health officials.

The grocery bags included canned beans, cereal, pasta, tomato sauce and other goods from the campus food closets and Westside Food Bank. Everytable, the Los Angeles-based fast-casual restaurant chain, provided the prepared meals, which included turkey taco bowls and spaghetti and meatballs. The cupcakes were made by The Butter End Cakery.

"I ate it in the car on my way home," said Quenarii Lampkin, a third-year psychology major. It made a big difference, she said, that the college president took the time to talk to her at a safe social distance while she was in her car.

"I felt like my college definitely had my back in that moment," she said.

This bright moment underscores how the job losses and the upending of college education brought on by the current crisis is leading many students to consider how they will take care of their basic needs and continue their college educations.

MAKE ENDS MEET OR STAY IN COLLEGE

Lampkin was laid off recently from her job at Cayton's Children's Museum in Santa Monica. She got a job at an Amazon warehouse in Pasadena three days a week, but she says the work is physically exhausting and her shift is overnight — 8:30 p.m. to 5 a.m.. That leaves her just four hours before some of her morning Zoom classes and deadlines to turn in assignments online.

"Yesterday was one of those days where I was just feeling extremely stressed out, overwhelmed," Lampkin said "So I just decided to sleep all day and I could have been more productive with school but I think that health is more of a priority."

She decided to go to the pop-up drive-through because the COVID-19 crisis is making it hard for her to pay for rent, food, and gas. As president of the Black Collegians club on campus, she's seeing other African Americans in the same situation.

"Me and maybe a lot of my peers, we weren't prepared for this [crisis] so whereas some people, they may have a nest egg or they may have had savings... I didn't have anything to fall back on. That's why I had to pick up the Amazon job and it's been extremely hard," she said.

Lizzy Moore, Santa Monica College Foundation president, takes part in the college's food pantry pop-up. (Santa Monica College)

Colleges call Lampkin's situation "basic needs insecurity" and it's not new.

Advocates in the California community colleges, California State University, and the University of California had been making headway in the last five years calling attention to student homelessness and hunger. The leaders of those institutions secured funds to help students, and campuses had tapped into food and housing help in their surrounding neighborhoods.

With unemployment soaring in the last month, college officials have seen more financially insecure students stepping forward to ask for help.

"At California State University Long Beach last year in March we had 34 students apply for our emergency program, our basic needs program," said CSU Long Beach social work professor Rashida Crutchfield. "In this March we've had 80 [applications] and I think that's going to continue to rise."

She said other campuses are trying similar pop-up strategies to give their students food items and other help as campuses shut down buildings.

Crutchfield is one of the authors of a study last year about food insecurity at Cal State campuses. She and her colleagues were set to begin a study of how basic needs efforts have made a difference for students. They will not send out those surveys now because students are in very different situations.

She said it's hard to predict the impact of these efforts in the coming months.

"Every day we're learning something new about how COVID-19 is impacting our lives and what precautions we need to take," she said "What I am inspired by is the creativity and commitment of folks to continue to be of service to students."

For Lampkin, taking care of her basic needs is a way to reach her goal of enrolling at a CSU or UC campus this fall to study clinical psychology.

"I will be transferring," she said.