Art by Cassandra Stephenson
Photos by Terra Atwood
For Pepperdine University alumnus Amoni Henderson, class of 2017, a negative bank account balance forced him to skip meals and go hungry for nearly three months.
Henderson found himself thousands of dollars in debt after several roommate agreements fell through, forcing him to take on more housing financial burdens than he was able to meet, he said. On top of having trouble finding a job post-graduation, Henderson found himself deeply in the red and created a GoFundMe page in an attempt to alleviate some of his expenses.
“I’m doing a lot better after my GoFundMe. I definitely am not starving anymore, so it’s good,” Henderson said. “I can eat and pay most of my bills and stuff like that. It’s still just a struggle to get income, obviously, because it’s hard to get that up.”
His GoFundMe was able to generate $4,420 by 115 donors. He said he hadn’t spoken to some of the people who donated in nearly a decade, and was touched by their contributions.
“What helped me personally the most wasn’t anything I did during the situation, it just happened to be my previous friendships and people that I talked to in the past, Henderson said. “…You never know when you’re going to need people.”
Henderson currently freelances as an art production assistant, but is still seeking full-time employment. He said he even went as far as applying to the McDonald’s down the street from him to try and get any income possible.
Henderson is not alone.
For Pepperdine students, a required meal plan and on-campus housing for the first two years at Seaver College is an expense some can’t afford on campus. At $15,320 for a double-occupancy room and meal plan, according to the cost of attendance for the 2018-2019 school year, the expense can force those without the appropriated funds to choose between the cost of food, shelter and gas, and it can place a significant financial burden on those students’ families.
There are several clubs and Pepperdine Volunteer Center (PVC)-coordinated service opportunities to assist communities facing food insecurity outside of the Pepperdine bubble. In LA County alone, the percentage of families facing food insecurity is at 12.3 percent, according to the County of Los Angeles Public Health.
But on-campus food insecurity is rarely seen or heard about, and it’s a growing problem, said Samantha Newman, junior and head of advertising at Pepperdine’s branch of Swipe Out Hunger, an on-campus group that strives to bring awareness and alleviate the impact of food insecurity.
“Pepperdine has this huge issue where it’s like, ‘Oh, it’s Pepperdine,’ you see these sports cars, you see these super expensive things, so it’s like, ‘No way would anybody have food insecurity,’” Newman said.
The United States Department of Agriculture defines food insecurity in two stages: Low food security, which “reports a reduction in the quality, variety or desirability of diet with little to no indication of reduced food intake,” or very low food security, which “reports of multiple indications of disrupted eating patterns and reduced food intake.”
Henderson’s food insecurity, although only temporary, would have fallen under the very low food security category.
Low food security affected 29.2 percent of households with incomes less than three times the federal poverty level in Los Angeles County in 2015, and very low food security affected 11.3 percent of households — or, to put it in concrete numbers, nearly 217,000 homes in Los Angeles County.
On college campuses alone, about one in five students skip meals to afford the costs attributed to their education, according to Swipe Out Hunger.
“The students facing the greatest hardships are those from low-income backgrounds, those who are undocumented, those who have children, first-generation college students and former foster youth,” Swipe Out Hunger wrote on their website of the campus hunger problem. “Even students who have a job, participate in some kind of campus meal plan or utilize other financial assistance like Pell Grants experience food insecurity.”
Someone who is food insecure doesn’t know where they will get their next meal, said Andrea Harris, senior director of Student Administrative Services and a member of the Student Care Team. The Student Care Team is the biggest source of support for those on campus who are personally affected by food insecurity.
Finding Pepperdine’s Food Insecurity Community
The Student Care Team receives recommendations from members of the community about students who are dealing with food insecurity at all five of Pepperdine University’s schools, Harris said.
“Our standard practice is to contact the student and find out the nature of the situation,” Harris said. “A lot of times there’s a lot more going on and our goal is not just to address one issue, which is the most obvious one, but then provide a more holistic support structure for that person.”
Food insecurity can be an ongoing problem in someone’s life, but it can also surprise students following a significant change in their life that may affect them not only emotionally but also financially, Harris said.
Over this past academic year, Harris has seen several cases where a parent has passed away, leaving the child, a Pepperdine student, to fend for themselves financially for the first time.
“All of a sudden somebody who’s had their money coming in all the time from their parent has nothing,” Harris said. “So it could happen out of nowhere to any of us, and that’s something that I think people don’t realize.”
For Henderson, housing expenses nearly doubled when several roommate and sublease agreements fell through, which was something he did not see coming. Since he is a Pepperdine graduate, he would not be eligible for the Student Care Team’s services.
However, Henderson said his parents were able to step in and help carry the burden — something they had never done before, since all of his college expenses were paid out of his own pocket or through scholarships up until this point.
“It was surprising as well that my parents were willing and able to help me for a couple months,” Henderson said. “But they have their limit, obviously, and I felt like I didn’t want to ask for more money because I know they didn’t have it.”
Providing Resources for Those On Campus in Need
PVC Environmental Justice Coordinator and member of the Green Team Charles Wyffels said he has tried to use the community garden, located below the practice soccer intramural field up the road from Towers and Rho Parking Lot, as a source of food for those he knows of on campus who are food insecure.
But the Pepperdine junior said he wished he could do more to serve the community using the garden and the abundance of fresh, organic and healthy foods it produces each year.
“We have a community garden on campus. Last year me, partnering with Green Team, we harvested a bunch of potatoes from there, which we shared with somebody on campus,” Wyffels said.
In cases where a student finds themselves in a financial bind for the first time, leading them to question where funds will come from to go toward purchasing food, Harris or a fellow Student Care Team member will step in and provide resources and solutions for that student.
For most cases, a member of the Student Care Team will provide the student in question with a gift card ranging in value depending on their need to a grocery store nearest to them, Harris said.
The Student Care Team has also set up a network where students, faculty and staff can share on-campus events, like some Board events or Student Government Association town halls, that feature free or discounted foods with those on campus who are food insecure, Harris said.
Faculty and staff can also use their Dine with a Student pass on a student known to the Student Care Team as someone facing food insecurity to give that student a meal free of charge.
For some, it may mean applying for financial aid for the first time, or reaching out to nonprofits for additional financial assistance.
“We’ll work with them to find a more long-term solution to their situation, and sometimes it could be working with financial [aid] to apply when they’ve never had to apply before because of the different circumstances, and also to work with other local nonprofits to get them assistance,” Harris said.
The Student Care Team is made of only staff because a lot of the cases the team takes on require access to confidential materials that only staff should have access to, Harris said.
For some members of the community, helping those with food insecurity comes from more personal financial contributions. Harris said she has personally bought students in need $50 worth of groceries from Nature’s Edge to ensure they have access to the food they need. She also said a faculty member brought that same student into their home and cooked meals for him.
“A lot of that is personal, you’ll see people doing … which I think is so moving to see,” Harris said.
Newman said food insecurity is a problem that is receiving attention from the administration, but students also have a responsibility to step up and take action toward eliminating on-campus food insecurity.
“I just really want to emphasize that it is an issue at Pepperdine,” Newman said. “There’s such a mindset and stereotype for Pepperdine students, and so many people discredit it and think, ‘Oh, it’s not here, we don’t have to worry about it,’ but the student next to you hasn’t eaten for two days.”
Pepperdine’s Swiping Out Hunger
Swipe Out Hunger, which was established on Pepperdine’s campus in 2014, is one of the clubs on campus dedicated to assisting those who are food insecure. The club two campus-wide events dedicated to provide service to the food insecurity community in Los Angeles, but they hope to expand that to also include the food insecure community on-campus as well.
“We plan out the bi-semesterly event of the sandwich drive, and then we also at the end of the year, we do meal point drive,” Newman said. “We get together, figure that out and we’re actually also talking about on-campus food insecurity, so we’re just kind of figuring stuff out and how to navigate that.”
What started as an annual sandwich drive turned into a full lunch drive with donations of fruit and snacks from Sodexo, and this past year, the Swipe Out Hunger team was able to distribute hundreds of lunches to the Midnight Mission on Skid Row.
“This last semester, we actually made 500 lunches, which was amazing, so it was really, really successful,” Newman said.
They also organize the annual meal point drive, where students can donate up to $50 worth of leftover meal points at the end of the year, Newman said. The total amount of meal points eligible for donation increased from $25 this past year.
“Then if they have more that they want to donate but it exceeds the limit, we encourage them to buy food, nonperishable foods from Nature’s Edge, chips, whatever, and then they can donate that as well,” Newman said.
With the donated meal points, the Swipe Out Hunger team purchases food from Sodexo and donates it to a local organization of the club’s choosing, Newman said. In past years they have donated to the Conejo Valley Food Bank and the Midnight Mission.
Recovering On-Campus Food
The Food Recovery Network, another national nonprofit organization, formed its Pepperdine branch about a year ago and is another on-campus organization trying to prevent food waste by bringing recovered food to those who need it, said the club’s president and junior, Alexavier Xue.
“What we do specifically as a university chapter is that we try to arrange different educational events to teach people about the effects of food waste as well as doing the actual food recovery where we partner with Starbucks a lot to recover their leftover food,” Xue said.
At recent food recoveries from the on-campus Starbucks, the Food Recovery Network was able to recover and donate almost 100 pounds of food to local homeless shelters, Xue said. In the future, Xue said she hopes to be able to prioritize that food to those facing food insecurity on campus.
“It’s hard for people to admit that they’re food insecure, but we are aware that there are people who are food insecure on campus, we’re just trying to figure out more of a subtle way to reach out to them so that they can identify that they are indeed food insecure,” Xue said.
Reaching Beyond the Pepperdine Bubble
Week of Hunger and Homelessness is an annual event the PVC hosts to fundraise and garner donations for severely underprivileged communities of Los Angeles, said junior Dominique Galloway, one of PVC’s hunger and homelessness coordinators for the Ventura County area.
Galloway coordinated an event where students brought food to a church on Skid Row, spent time with parishioners and hosted a karaoke night with them. She also organized an event on the topic of food distribution, where students separated into groups and were educated on food insecurity.
“We had an upperclass group, a middle-class group and people who are impoverished and we said, ‘You live on $1 a day, and this is the food that you’re eating today,’ and it was able to show them that it’s not like it is at Pepperdine, basically,” Galloway said.
By partnering with organizations like Food Forward in Ventura County, which takes produce accumulated through donations from farmers to more than 300 organizations across Southern California, Galloway was able to talk farmer’s with stands at local farmer’s markets into donating their excess produce.
“It’s healthy food, it’s fresh food, it’s not garbage, it’s not something I feel like homeless people are used to eating,” Galloway said. “It’s something that’s better quality so it’s kind of cool to just be in that experience.”
As far as lending a hand to those not enrolled at Pepperdine University, Harris said the Student Care Team’s resources don’t extend that far; however, by serving a student, the team is indirectly alleviating some of the pressure off the student’s family.
“It’s typically the people on campus because we don’t have the resources to support people at home, but I will say as a caveat to that that we have an emergency fund through the student care team that we know will have benefitted somebody and their families,” Harris said.
Some of the situations students find themselves in that contribute to their food insecurity aren’t isolated to purchasing food, Harris said. If a student is food insecure, providing assistance for that student takes the pressure off their family back at home.
“So let’s say their family has issues back home. That they themselves have to pay for gas, and all the gas money that they use to commute to campus is money that their family doesn’t have,” Harris said. “So we’ll say here’s $100 to pay for your gas. Then we know we’re indirectly benefitting the family, but our number one goal is to directly benefit the student.”
Newman said a lot of Pepperdine students are given a privilege of time or money, and if they have the resources to give back to the homeless and food insecure communities, they should take advantage of that ability.
“I have such a heart for the homeless, and I can’t blame everyone for not having a heart for it, but I just really want to encourage people to just give what you can when you can,” Newman said.
When it comes down to supporting those facing food insecurity on- or off-campus, Henderson said to have an open heart and mind toward those individuals.
“People should just be nice to other people,” Henderson said. “Be a good friend. That’s what helped me.”
Follow Rachel Ettlinger on Twitter: @RachelEttlinger