“I can’t imagine what it would be like to wake up in the morning and know you have an important exam that determines whether or not you can continue in the nursing program or whether you can get that manufacturing degree, and you wake up and open your cupboard at home and there’s nothing there. So you say, ‘OK, power through it and get through the day,'” said Michael Boyd, vice president for instruction and student success at Kankakee Community College.
“If at 1 p.m. you haven’t had breakfast and you haven’t had lunch, it’s hard to get through the exam.”
A recent study of college students in the United States showed 48 percent of respondents reported experiencing food insecurity — inconsistent access to a sufficient quantity of nutritious food — in the previous 30 days.
After hearing from Linh Williams, coordinator of student life and development at KCC, that students were struggling with food insecurity, professor Francesca Catalano looked for a solution. The associate dean of the math, science and engineering division, Catalano began asking around, and found many professors already had a stash of food in their offices for hungry students. It was time to coordinate those efforts.
“A lot of our faculty have been here a long time or they’re from the area, and they really have a connection with our students,” said Catalano, who has worked at KCC for a year and a half. “Depending on the majors, they might have the same students for multiple classes, so they really connect well and the students trust them, and trust them enough to discuss something that might be shameful for some people.”
The KCC food pantry will open Wednesday at 2 p.m. with a ceremony in room R307 and a ribboncutting ceremony at 2:30 p.m. The shelves already are stocked with nonperishable goods and hygiene products such as baby diapers, toothbrushes, tampons and shampoo.
At community colleges, one-fourth of students reported very low food security, meaning they lacked not only access to nutritional food, but any food at all. More than half of all students who said they had experienced food insecurity said hunger or housing problems forced them to skip a class or prevented them from purchasing a required textbook, despite around the same number of students holding down a paying job.
“We want to be a welcome, positive environment,” Catalano said. “We’re not looking at economics, and I’m not saying, ‘Let me see your W-2.’ Any student can use it.”
With the cost of college soaring, KCC reiterated its commitment to affordable education and to emphasizing the “community” aspect of community college through efforts such as the food pantry and small grants through the KCC Foundation.
“One of the other things we do through the foundation is to listen to the ongoing needs of our students,” Boyd said. “If it’s the end of the pay cycle and you’ve run out of gas money, how do you get to school? We urge our faculty members to keep their ears open and be open to those needs.”
Catalano said she thinks the pantry will fulfill other student needs by setting an example of service learning and encouraging students to volunteer in the community. Recently, a psychology class studying persuasion canvassed to raise money for the pantry and drummed up about $100 in 15 minutes.
Many other individual students and student groups have signed up to volunteer. KCC student Candace Martell said she hopes to go into the field of dietetics. To prepare for her future career, Martell is putting together healthy recipes that use the food available at the pantry.
“I wanted to look at healthy recommendations for people using the food pantry, and it’s interesting, finding recipes that can be a family meal and be healthy and nutritious at the same time. When you think nonperishable foods, you don’t usually think ‘healthy’ or ‘good for your body.’ It’s challenging, but it’s exciting to do,” Martell said.
Eventually, Catalano plans to expand the pantry’s offerings with a fridge and freezer to store perishable goods, and, once the pantry is firmly established, dreams of one day setting up a partnership between KCC and local foster homes. After less than two years at KCC, Catalano has high hopes for the future, and says the support of college administrators has been invaluable.
“There’s such a diverse population we serve at this community college, and we’re recognizing there were students in need, in different ways and at different levels,” she said. “Financial need, scholastic need or, in this case, hunger.”