Basic Needs fights against student food and housing insecurities

Technology, food and rent insecurities are the biggest barriers California State University, Monterey Bay (CSUMB) students are having to overcome this academic school year due to the pandemic. Thanks to generous donations and grants, the Basic Needs Initiative can help relieve some of students’ burdens. The Basic Needs Initiative assists with rent and groceries and provides funds for those in financial need.

Care Manager Joanna Snawder-Manzo responds to all the referrals that Leslie Williams, Associate Vice President for Student Affairs and Dean of Students, gets in her office regarding student needs, which range from academic to financial. It is “very holistic, it can really be a gamut, so no two situations are alike, but we do support a lot of students,” Snawder-Manzo said.

In 2015, Snawder-Manzo helped develop the Food Insecurity and Hunger Committee into the Basic Needs Initiative and launched CSUMB’s first food pantry. Five years later, we have built tremendous resources, and one of the things I notice right away in my role is that the reason why a lot of students had health concerns or academic concerns is because their basic needs were not getting met. Whether it was food, housing related or now we’re seeing technology,” Snawder-Manzo said. 

Basic Needs coordinator Ashley Ramsden works with students to ensure their needs are met so they can be successful students at CSUMB. Ramsden said that all students are welcome to utilize the Basic Needs program including graduate students, international, undocumented, full time students and part time students.

The only people exempt from the program are faculty or staff, unless the person also happens to be a student. Basic Needs exempts certain individuals from the program to guarantee students have access to these resources. Most of the resources they provide are related to combating food insecurities.

“So even virtually we are doing that now, but we also work with students struggling in terms of their housing security and nowadays technology,” Ramsden said. “A lot of students are facing general financial concerns because of the pandemic. Students who were working in restaurants or in shoe stores or places that aren’t really seeing as much business, they got laid off, and as a result are having issues with rent, technology and food.” 

Basic Needs offers virtual drop-in hours for students looking for those resources. Additionally the program hosts weekly Cooking with CSUMB classes, allowing students the opportunity to win $25 e-gift cards to purchase groceries.

Due to the uncertainty of COVID-19, CSUMB terminated their contract with A’viands dining services. “So even if tomorrow, let’s imagine the world is safe and everybody can go back to campus. We don’t have a food service provider. The campus will have to go through a rigorous process to identify one,” Snawder-Manzo said. “That impacted us because we had three big programs: Feed Each Otter, Otter Eats and our Starbucks program were all partnerships.” 

Snawder-Manzo hopes when CSUMB gets a food provider in the future that they will work with Basic Needs just as A’viands did.But, we don’t know. We have to rebuild those partnerships.” 

Feed Each Otter provided students facing food insecurities with a meal voucher. When COVID-19 hit, and CSUMB went remote, many students left campus wondering about their next meal. Snawder-Manzo remembers racing to provide students with the opportunity to eat. “Well, what about food insecure students? And we’re like, ‘oh, no, we don’t want anybody to be turned away.’ So we grabbed our stack of like, one hundred vouchers and we rushed them over [to the Dining Commons].” 

Ramsden said that a bulk of the funding that CSUMB’s Basic Needs program has for this year and last year came from the state, when they passed Assembly Bill 74. All the grant money they received can be applied towards a technology program that mass alerts students of free food events, similar to the program used by Feed Each Otter.

The money also goes towards the giveaways that Basic Needs hosts. “We’ve already pulled down over $100,000 for the emergency fund alone to give to the students since COVID hit,” Snawder-Manzo said.

Since Basic Needs only has funding until June 2021, Snawder-Manzo fears budget cuts. Despite the unknown, the program is a recipient of donations. Basic Needs received $80,000 from a donor whose mission is to help students who are facing homelessness. Snawder-Manzo said, “the woman who donated the $80,000 at first just wanted to help a few students, but when COVID happened she pivoted and said, ‘okay, what can we do?’ And now today she’s helped 40 students. Her span became so much wider than what she originally thought.”

Reflecting on the critical help the donation has dispersed,  “those who have fallen behind on rent, or because of job loss, they weren’t able to keep up with the bills. So honestly, that has really allowed a lot of students to just be enrolled in school,” Ramsden said. CSUMB campus members have extended housing availabilites for those in need.

Congressman Jimmy Panetta announced on Sept. 2 that CSUMB is one of the four higher education institutions who will be receiving $600,000 for being a Hispanic Serving Institution. Snawder-Manzo does not anticipate Basic Needs will be issued any grant money, due to receiving large amounts from other organizations. However, Basic Needs is looking for assistance in supporting students any way they can. 

Ramsden said, “people don’t have the jobs that they used to have. So they really do just need financial support sometimes. I think that we should trust students to say, ‘okay, you’re saying this is what you need.’ So take these funds and use it to buy the laptop that you need, or the router that you need, or the hotspot, or pay for your bills and trust that they will prioritize correctly.”  

Students seeking assistance or looking to offer donations can contact Basic Needs Initiative. For those needing weekly virtual fun, tune into Basic Needs cooking classes, where students and faculty share recipes and raffle off gift cards.

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