Fresno State tackles the growing problem of student food insecurity

by Kathleen Rhodes Schock

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Brenda Hartman is at home among the carefully stacked canned vegetables, crates of produce and loaves of bread that line the shelves of the Student Cupboard at Fresno State. She manages the operation with the efficiency of a grocer — except in her case the only payment she’ll accept is a hug. “I get hugs on a daily basis,” she says with a smile.

It’s easy to see why. Since opening in November, the Student Cupboard has become far more than a food distribution center for students in need. Under Hartman’s careful watch, students receive the food they need to sustain them, the knowledge of how to prepare it and encouragement from someone who understands firsthand the challenges they face.

Hartman has years of experience with food banks, both as a volunteer and as a recipient. After 25 years working as a veterinary technician, the single mother found herself unable to feed her three children. The support of food banks not only sustained her family, but it also inspired a new life mission. In addition to running the Student Cupboard, this 50-year-old is a full-time student at Fresno State and the first in her family to attend college. She expects to graduate next year with a bachelor’s in health science and community health, but her ultimate goal is to earn a doctorate and write policy to address food insecurity.

“The faces of food-insecure people, you can’t tell. You don’t know who they are,” she says. That is the case at Fresno State, where according to a recent study at least one in 10 students has uncertain access to safe or nutritionally adequate food.

“Students cannot reach their potential in the classroom if they are worried about where their next meal will come from,” Fresno State President Joseph I. Castro said at the Student Cupboard launch in November. “That’s why the issue of food security is so close to my heart.”

Under Castro’s leadership, the Student Cupboard is one of several initiatives that make up the Food Security Project at Fresno State. The program’s coordinator, Jessica Medina, says universities across the nation have reached out to learn from Fresno State’s model. “If we want to increase our graduation rates, this is one way to help. We need to give our students the resources they need.”

More than 900 students visited the Student Cupboard in its first three months of operation. All students need to do is swipe an active student ID card, and they are welcome to take whatever they need, including helpful advice from Hartman. “My inspiration is to teach kids how to cook so they can take care of themselves,” she says. “I put meals together for them. For example, put these three cans together and you have soup, put everything in this bag together and you have breakfast.”

The Student Cupboard purchases food from the Community Food Bank in Fresno, but much of what fills the shelves is donated from the campus community. “We have one professor who brings us grapefruit out of her yard,” Hartman says. Interest in supporting the Student Cupboard is so strong, they stop distributions on Tuesday to give student volunteers an opportunity to help with cleaning, stocking and inventory. “We don’t allow students to volunteer during distribution because one of the biggest things we heard from food insecure students is they don’t want their peers to know they are in need,” Medina says.

It’s a feeling Hartman understands. “It’s embarrassing. It’s humiliating to voice that I can’t pay my bills. I don’t have enough gas to get to school. I have to choose between food and prescriptions. We hear it all the time, but these students aren’t alone. Not anymore.”
Kathleen Rhodes Schock is director of media and development communications at Fresno State.


Food Security Project

Fresno State is taking a proactive approach to ensuring all students are food secure. Projects within the initiative include:

Student Cupboard:
Food and hygiene distribution center for students.

Meal Buxx:
Food vouchers that can be used at the University Dining Hall.

Catered Cupboard:
The University is developing a mobile app that will tell students when food is available at the conclusion of catered events.

Education and resources:
Workshops on money management, budget-friendly meals and other ways to educate students in need. The program also assists students who are food insecure to understand eligibility requirements for public assistance programs and other resources.

Good Samaritan Fund:
Provides one-time financial support for students who experience a misfortune or tragedy that could negatively impact their success.


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For more information about the Food Security Project or to donate to the Student Cupboard,
contact Jessica Medina at or 559.278.0866.