By Lila Goehring ’21
Food insecurity has recently become a hot topic of conversation in higher education as many colleges and universities across the country face the impact of rising tuition costs on their populations. Anthony Jack, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, told the school’s Usable Knowledge blog that “if you are making it a point to diversify your campus or acknowledge who you have on campus, specifically lower-income students, you need to be aware of the problems they face, and food insecurity is one of those problems.”
In the Bay Area, where the cost of living is at an all-time high, the College is attempting to combat this current reality with the new Mills Pantry, which opened on April 17. The idea to bring a food pantry to campus originated in a public policy graduate thesis by Toni Gomez ’13, MPP ’17, who found in 2016 that 40 percent of Mills students were food insecure. The pantry itself operates in conjunction with the Alameda County Community Food Bank and is overseen by Judith Pierce, manager of wellness and community outreach. “When we think about improving access to food, we know that’s going to improve academics,” she said at a February staff meeting to introduce the pantry. “It’s difficult to focus when you’re hungry.”
Pierce worked within the Division of Student Life to raise awareness and provide access to food and resources prior to the pantry’s opening. Throughout this past academic year, several pop-up food pantries in Adams Plaza and a temporary food closet in Cowell Building were open to students before the permanent location debuted in the CPM Building. The space includes a reception area for students to inquire about issues related to food resources (such as assistance with obtaining Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or MediCal benefits) along with immediate access to the pantry. It’s accessible to all students on campus and is open three days a week during the school year.
Students are already responding to the pantry’s presence on campus, even if it’s not something they personally use. To secure funding, the Class of 2019 voted to designate the pantry as its senior gift, with nearly $4,000 raised for the cause by press time. “We would love to have students lead a lot of this,” Pierce said, explaining that the pantry’s goal is to “be a permanent component of the Mills experience.” It is also a volunteer opportunity and could even become a way for students to fulfill their Community Engagement requirement— a component of the recently established Core Curriculum.
Besides that, the move reflects the College’s continued work in social justice— as well as the simple fact that hungry students can’t perform to their full potential. “Our hope is that being able to provide that necessary in-the-moment food, that will help with academic performance and ultimately lead to a stronger student population,” Pierce said.