While starting out at Cuesta Community College in high-rent San Luis Obispo and after transferring to CSU, Chico, first-generation college student Brandi Simonaro often went hungry.
Her parents supported what she was trying to do—even if they didn’t always understand her need to do it—but she was on her own when it came to figuring out and financing college.
None of the students she met, even those whose circumstances seemed similar, talked about hunger. So Simonaro concluded that she must be the only one whose resources ran out long before the month did. She kept quiet about her ongoing struggles to stay afloat and stay healthy while somehow also staying in school.
But everything changed at Chico State on the day someone from the Center for Healthy Communities’ (CHC) CalFresh Outreach program came into one of her nutrition classes to talk about how common hunger was among college students—and how CalFresh benefits can help students buy much-needed groceries.
“Up until that point, I really did think I was the only one who was hungry,” Simonaro said. “If it was just me, just my problem, why talk about it? Plus, I had no idea that help was available. That day totally changed my life.”
Simonaro immediately signed up for CalFresh benefits. Suddenly, she had resources every month just to buy food, no matter what other bills she was juggling. Because of CalFresh, she was able to complete a challenging degree in nutrition within two years instead of three.
She also learned more about the CHC and its CalFresh Outreach program—including an internship that would allow her to reach out to other students about hunger and teach them how to apply for CalFresh. Simonaro signed on for that, too, very enthusiastically.
In her early outreach, though, she thought she was doing something wrong. Even after sharing her own experiences, no one raised a hand when she asked how many students skipped meals or otherwise cut back on food just to make ends meet.
“Then students started chasing me down the hall after my presentations,” Simonaro said. “They wanted to say, ‘Yes, I’m in that struggle, too!’ but were afraid to speak up in front of other students, because they, too, thought they were the only one. Who wants to be the only one?”
That’s how powerful the stigma of food insecurity can be—and why Simonaro openly discusses her own experiences whenever she can.
“Now when I ask students if they have ever gone hungry, many people raise their hands! Not only that, they openly share their stories, talk about their struggles,” Simonaro said. “I think that’s why we’ve come so far in the last few years signing students up for CalFresh. We’ve started to banish that stigma. Students need to hear that they aren’t the only ones having these struggles.”
The fact that Simonaro has “been there too” makes a difference in many ways. She is often touched when students tell her how much CalFresh has helped them, how much their lives have changed because they are no longer hungry.
“Being able to help other people realize their dreams—that really matters to me,” she said. “And connecting people to CalFresh helps do that.”
Simonaro’s general experience as a first-generation college student has also served her well as a full-time health education coordinator at the CHC.
“I still have this pioneer mentality,” she said. “I may not know how to do something, how to overcome this or that challenge, but I’ll figure it out as I move ahead. And I do.”
Simonaro thrives on the creativity her CalFresh Outreach job requires—figuring out new and better ways to connect with students and creating effective programs by putting existing resources together (like so many puzzle pieces) in new and unexpected ways.
“I need that, the challenge of taking a certain set of things—limited resources maybe, but so many great ideas—and turning that into something new. It’s like recycling, repurposing,” she said.
Simonaro has been traveling throughout California for her CHC CalFresh Outreach work since last November. Her job? Hosting workshops for college administrators about how to build a good, student-focused outreach program on their campus.
This past year she has conducted all-day trainings at almost a dozen CSU campuses, one University of California campus, and with California Community Colleges (CCC) staff in all 10 CCC regions.
But this fall, Simonaro is hanging up her suitcase. Now that she’s started her graduate studies to pursue a master’s degree in business administration—all the better to master the ins and outs of project management, she said—she is happy to stay closer to home.
—Kim Weir (BA, Environmental Studies and Analysis, ’77; MFA, Creative Writing, ’07) oversees communications and media for the Center for Healthy Communities. She is also a travel writer, author of multiple travel guides, and host of the weekly Up the Road program on North State Public Radio.