Karen Santamaria/Courier Illustration
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Hiding in the shadow of PCC’s Aspen Top 10 ranking is a dark problem affecting its students; food insecurity is the ghost haunting community college campuses, and Pasadena City College is no exception.

“Some students tell us they haven’t eaten in three days, we have students living out of their cars, we have students that have nowhere to sleep and they try to sleep in doorways.” said Lisa Nelson, Outreach Coordinator of the Lancer Pantry, which offers limited amounts of free food to any student who is enrolled in a class.

The number of students suffering from food insecurity at PCC is not known because no studies or surveys have been conducted by the administration to allow underfed students the statistical foundation necessary to accurately diagnose the problem. However, the pantry serves about 100 students per day, many of whom are regulars because they have no alternative. While the pantry will virtually always have food to offer to students who need it, there have been times that supply has struggled to keep up with unfortunately high demand.

“Because we’re going through 800 to a thousand pounds of food per day, we need a lot of donations,” Nelson said.

The pantry especially struggles with accessing highly nutritional options, such as fresh produce.

“We’re trying to work on getting more fresh produce We have a lot of students, and many of the students, they want to eat healthy, just because they don’t have a lot of money, they still want to eat healthy, so if we could get more fruits and vegetables that would be nice,” said Nelson.

The weight of the problem is partially due to the limited purchasable food options on campus, which often fall short of providing access to nutrition for students who struggle financially. The cafeteria beneath the student center offers processed veggie fries, donuts, sandwiches dripping with grease and marinara sauce, french fries and pizza rotating under heat lamps. The number of food cups available pales in comparison to the bags of potato chips stuffed onto racks.

More students appear to be eating food from ziplock containers they brought from home than from the vendors. More commonly, the tables in the cafeteria are attended by students eating nothing at all.

“I think the food situation here on campus, for lack of a better word, really sucks. I think the food here is really not good at all,” said Dr. Michelle Banks, professor of African-American Literature. “It’s all condensed, processed food, it’s all pasta, it’s all donuts, chips, all of that kind of stuff.”

For Dr. Banks, non-nutritional and overpriced food options on campus become particularly problematic when she is stuck on campus for several hours, a problem with which thousands of students can likely relate.

Even if campus vendors offered healthier choices, however, that would still not fix the problem of requiring students, many of whom are homeless and/or raising children,  to buy their way to health. According to a recent report by the Los Angeles Times, 1 in 5 students in the nearby Los Angeles Community College School District are homeless.

“Students should be worried about their tests and their grades,” says Nelson. “To add on to that ‘where am I going to eat next?’ That’s too much stress.”

She had just closed the refrigerator in the pantry. It was mostly empty save for a serving each of Mac and Cheese and Chile con Carne. A package of partially bruised grapes was isolated in a corner on the bottom shelf.

“We’re a little low today,” she said.

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