Standing inside the food pantry at UCI’s Student Outreach & Retention Center are (from left) ASUCI food security co-commissioner Erica Wong, Orange County Food Bank director Mark Lowry, SOAR director Graciela Fernandez and ASUCI food security co-commissioner Karina Lopez. Audrey Yap

Aiming to satisfy the appetites of underfed students, the University of California, Irvine has launched a campus food bank.

Stocked with canned spaghetti, soup, energy bars and other nonperishables, the free food pantry is part of a systemwide UC effort to combat student hunger.

Plans for an Anteater pantry had been brewing for several years but gained traction in March, after UC President Janet Napolitano granted $75,000 to each UC campus for programs aimed at reducing food insecurity.

The funding was spurred, in part, by a series of biennial surveys in which roughly 25 percent of UC undergrads said they had skipped meals to save money “somewhat often” or “very often” in the previous 12 months.

“No student should ever have to make a decision between a meal and a textbook,” says Sadia Saifuddin, a former UC Berkeley student regent who helped spearhead the systemwide food effort.

Hunger impairs concentration, weakens the immune system and leaves students more susceptible to stress, UC officials say.

Nationwide, about 200 universities have food banks for students.

So far, UCI’s pantry has logged 160 visitors, according to Graciela Fernandez, director of the Student Outreach & Retention Center, which operates the program on weekdays from noon to 2 p.m. at 106 Gateway Study Center.

Students are allowed to take about three days’ worth of food per week. SOAR purchases the food at a discount – 6 cents a pound – from the Orange County Food Bank. “We filled our entire food closet for just $30,” Fernandez says.

Pantry patrons aren’t required to prove financial need, but an ID-card swipe system is used to track visits and help prevent abuse of the service.

In addition to the $75,000 startup funding from UC headquarters, the UCI food bank received $2,500 from the Muslim Student Union. To keep the program running next year, Fernandez is hoping for an Associated Students of UCI referendum that would direct a portion of student fees to the pantry.