UCI students enjoy the free farmers market in Gateway Plaza thanks to UCI Student Outreach And Retention (SOAR) Center, Second Harvest Food Bank of Orange County and UCI Community and Government Relations. Steve Zylius / UCI

Last year, the University of California, Irvine’s Student Outreach & Retention Center, or SOAR, opened a food pantry to help address the hunger and food insecurity experienced, unfortunately, by many students. Although the pantry is not much more than a large closet, it has provided nonperishable goods to more than 1,000 Anteaters so far.

On National Food Day, Oct. 24, SOAR – along with the Second Harvest Food Bank of Orange County – increased the bounty by hosting the first free farmers market on campus, allowing access to fresh fruits and vegetables.

“Food insecurity is an important issue, and our students want the food pantry to grow and offer more nutritious items,” said Andrea Gutierrez, the food access and security coordinator at UCI who oversees the pantry. “That’s what we aim to accomplish.”

The free farmers market was one of several systemwide Food Day activities related to the UC Global Food Initiative, which is committed to expanding research and sharing best practices to improve the food system. The initiative’s goal is to rally the broad UC community across a wide range of disciplines to work toward enabling the world to sustainably and nutritiously feed itself.

The market was set up on a rainy Monday morning at the Lower Gateway Plaza, by Langson Library. It was first-come, first-served, and more than 250 students each received a large grocery bag full of produce. They were also given recipes and other food preparation ideas, and representatives from CalFresh were on hand to explain how the program can help make healthy and nutritious comestibles available to those in need.

The day’s selections included kiwis, apples, onions, potatoes, oranges and pears … and some cookies and boxed crackers, for good measure.

With distant thunder and lightning and the sky spitting rain, umbrella-clutching students began lining up well before the 11 a.m. start.

Natasha Amonkar was among the first. The second-year social policy & public service major regularly uses the SOAR Food Pantry. “I have a hard time buying groceries,” she said. “I have to save money, so this helps out a lot.”

Amonkar carried away a plastic bag bulging with about 15 pounds of produce – and Fig Newtons. “The rain doesn’t matter when there’s free food!” she noted.

The free farmers market will be held once a month on campus. “Food insecurity has always been an invisible issue, and we want to bring light to it,” Gutierrez said.

Among other Food Day-related events planned this month, the Anteaters Fight Hunger Food Drive allowed students to drop off nonperishable items at sites in the Pippin Commons and Anteatery dining halls. The Anteater community donated 228 pounds of food for the SOAR pantry.

SOAR director Graciela Fernandez said that despite the cramped quarters, the food pantry has been a success – and plans to move to a larger location next year.

With additional space, she said, the pantry can increase the number of students served and further accommodate Jessica Van Roo, culinary coordinator at the Anteater Recreation Center, who will be able to hold cooking demos and share recipes and ideas for making meals with pantry goods.

“We’ve been working with Jessica since last year, because we are aware many students need to increase their knowledge and skills to cook healthy meals from pantry items,” Fernandez said. “It’s been very helpful, and we look forward to expanding this effort.”

“The pantry and the farmers market are helping our students have access to the nutritious food they need,” she added. “It’s a project that’s meaningful, and we have so many people supporting our cause. We’re elated that we’re not alone in the fight to end hunger. From the day we opened, we’ve had staff, faculty and students who want to donate their food, money and time. Ultimately, many of our food pantry users come back and volunteer. It’s a cycle of community success.”