Food for thought

UC Davis Chancellor Gary May

How lucky we are to live in a community filled with so much great locally grown food.

Our farmers market bustles twice a week with the region’s freshest fruits and vegetables. Just steps away, a smorgasbord of international cuisine awaits in downtown Davis, with everything from tacos and teriyaki to matzo ball soup and shawarma.

Yet, in the midst of all this bounty, there’s an unfortunate irony. According to the Yolo Food Bank, about 20 percent of country residents — including children — don’t have enough food to eat. Clearly, we must do more to make sure this most basic of needs is met for all our fellow neighbors.

The hungry includes some UC Davis students. The idea of the “starving student” might be a longstanding archetype about the sacrifices made in higher education. But, if there was any romanticism about scholars scraping by on a diet of ramen noodles, I say it’s time to end this notion now.

In a 2016 University of California survey of undergraduates, 22 percent of UC Davis respondents said they occasionally skipped or cut the size of meals due to money issues. 30 percent said it was “sometimes true” that they worried if their food would run out before they had money to buy more.Chancellor May and LeShelle May tour the Yolo Food Bank

With these sobering numbers in mind, my wife, LeShelle, and I recently toured the Yolo Food Bank warehouse in Woodland with its executive director, Michael Bisch.

Bags of potatoes, rice and pasta were stacked high on pallets. Crates of fruits and vegetables were on standby. The sheer size of the stockpile made the statistics on the hungry very real. 

But, I left with hope that we can truly make a difference. UC Davis staff has joined forces with local farmers, Davis leaders and the Yolo Food Bank to help some our students who are most in need.

A couple weeks ago, the team delivered more than 2,000 pounds of food, including 195 pounds of fresh produce, to residents of Solano Park Apartments, who are mostly full-time students with children. Some are scraping by to meet their nutritional needs.

Davis Farmers Market vendors donated much of the produce. Yolo Food Bank supplied beans, rice, pasta and much more.

We’re running this pilot program through early September and I’m hopeful we can do more.

I find it unacceptable that any of our students go hungry or not know where their next meal is coming from.  Our students must stay properly nourished to focus on their studies and thrive as members of the university community.

In May, we opened a center in the Memorial Union called Aggie Compass, where students can pick up fresh produce for free and enroll in the state’s food stamp program.

Chancellor May and LeShelle May volunteer at the Food Pantry on campus. UC Davis students can also find help at The Pantry. This student-run organization provides up to three meals a day and other personal needs. LeShelle and I wanted to see this operation for ourselves, so we volunteered on a day during finals week in the basement of Freeborn Hall. I worked customer service and LeShelle handled inventory as students picked up pancake mix, soup, shampoo and other necessities.

I’m proud of all these programs and their dedication to serving our students, but I know we can build on this foundation. On that end, I’ve assembled a Student Food Security task force led by our Department of Nutrition chair, Francene Steinberg, to review our existing programs and suggest improvements. I look forward to reviewing their report and recommendations soon.

I’m hopeful that more from around our region will support organizations like Yolo Food Bank and The Pantry, which rely on donations from the community.

Let’s work together, like cooks in a kitchen, and give the hungry the safety net they need. 

Chancellor Gary S. May’s column appears in the The Davis Enterprise the first Friday of every month and in Dateline UC Davis.