UCI students tour the new, 2,318-square-foot FRESH Basic Needs Hub, stocked with dried and canned goods, fresh fruits and vegetables, refrigerated items and emergency toiletries. Steve Zylius / UCI

Andrea Gutierrez envisioned a new kind of food pantry when she signed on as basic needs coordinator at UCI two years ago: a place where students could pick up groceries but also learn to prepare healthy meals on a budget – and spend time with their friends. Instead of feeling shame for seeking assistance, they could feel empowered.

On Wednesday, Sept. 27, that vision became a reality as UCI launched the FRESH Basic Needs Hub, a 2,318-square-foot space located in a trailer at the end of Mesa Court’s parking lot 5. It features a pantry stocked with dried and canned goods, baskets of fresh fruits and vegetables, refrigerated items and emergency toiletries.

Thomas Parham, vice chancellor for student affairs, cuts the ribbon at the Sept. 27 opening of UCI’s FRESH Basic Needs Hub.
Steve Zylius / UCI

FRESH, which stands for Food Resources Empowering Students with Hope, is a student-initiated venture of the Student Outreach & Retention Center aimed at meeting the basic nutritional needs of Anteaters so that they can achieve their academic goals.

It’s the largest and most comprehensive food pantry in the University of California system, according to Gutierrez. And it reflects a cultural shift in how colleges are approaching the issue of food insecurity, defined as uncertain or limited ability to acquire sustenance due to lack of financial resources and a reduction in the quality and quantity of food available.

The UC’s 2016 Student Food Access & Security Study revealed that 42 percent of students had experienced a reduced quality of diet or decreased food intake in the previous 12 months. Similarly, a 2015 undergraduate survey at UCI found that 45 percent of Anteaters had endured food insecurity in the prior year.

Increasingly, universities are trying to diminish the shame associated with asking for help. “Food assistance shouldn’t be stigmatized,” Gutierrez said at the launch event. “We don’t want students to wait until there’s an emergency to seek aid. We want them to feel free to say out loud, ‘Hey, let’s meet up at FRESH’ or ‘I’m heading over to FRESH after class,’ instead of having to whisper about it.”

To that end, the FRESH Basic Needs Hub was designed to be inviting and attractive, with a kitchenette for meal prep and instruction and comfortable lounge areas for socializing and de-stressing between classes.

“Food assistance shouldn’t be stigmatized,” says Andrea Gutierrez, UCI’s basic needs coordinator, here at the pantry launch event. “We want [students] to feel free to say out loud, ‘Hey, let’s meet up at FRESH’ or ‘I’m heading over to FRESH after class,’ instead of having to whisper about it.” Steve Zylius / UCI

As Gutierrez noted, “the role of FRESH goes beyond food distribution. Students can come here and learn nutrition basics and how to eat healthy on a budget. We can help them apply for emergency food and housing grants, CalFresh benefits and free meal swipes from campus dining if they qualify. We’re taking a holistic approach so that students can get their basic needs met and focus on academics.”

The hub hosted an opening-day celebration with food, prizes and a live DJ. Melissa Mulengwa, a third-year public health student and FRESH intern, was there to greet students and campus community members.

“I’m excited to be promoting food security resources at UC Irvine, since it’s an issue that affects so many college students across the country,” she said. “It’s really important to have welcoming spaces like this on our campus.”

The student-driven nature of the FRESH project is best exemplified by the passage of the Food Pantry Initiative referendum in the spring of 2016. The measure adds a fee of $3 per quarter per student for the next 10 years to finance the operation of the food pantry, which originated in a storage closet in the Student Outreach & Retention Center.

In addition, the UC is providing $150,000 in funding for the 2017-18 academic year through its Global Food Initiative, established in 2014 to marshal university research to help communities here and abroad gain greater access to healthy and sustainable food.

As Gutierrez surveyed the students gathered around culinary education director Jessica VanRoo’s cooking demo – Vietnamese spring rolls – at Wednesday’s event, she beamed with pride.

“These are difficult times for many of our students,” she said. “I find peace in knowing that we can create transformative spaces like this for our communities.”

The FRESH Basic Needs Hub is accepting food and monetary donations. For more information, visit its website, at www.basicneeds.uci.edu.