As uncertainty prevails amid the COVID-19 pandemic, more students than ever are grappling with the unknown of where their next meal comes from. That’s why the Hungry Wildcat Food Pantry at Chico State has continued its services without interruption.

Like so many other programs across campus, it has adapted to the needs of this unprecedented time, finding new ways to get food to those who need it most. Instead of walking in and browsing the shelves for their fresh fruits and vegetables, boxed food, dry goods, and hygiene items as they did prior to the move to online education, students now adhere to social distancing practices and receive “Grab-and-Go Bags.”

Forming a line outside the food pantry’s entrance, users request what they would like from a printed list of items encased in a plastic sleeve and taped to a table. From behind that long table, donning a mask and a pair of rubber gloves, Basic Needs Project Admin Support Assistant Hector Martinez is by himself, gathering the goods.

While it’s difficult to estimate how many students remain in town since Chico State moved all of its classes online and to alternative formats, Martinez said the number of daily food pantry visitors has been climbing steadily—and he hopes to see more. The pantry has also made deliveries to students still living in University Village.

Prior to the pandemic, the Hungry Wildcat Food Pantry served an average of 250 students a day—a 25 percent increase from the previous academic year. And while it’s currently (and understandably) seeing substantially less traffic than earlier in the spring semester, numbers are growing.

“We started off seeing about 30 [visitors] per day, and now we’re averaging about 50,” Martinez said. “And I’m guessing the more that students find out we’re still open and the more students that do come back, it’s only going to increase.”

A 2018 research survey indicated that 41.6 percent of students in the California State University system suffered from low to very low food security—the number of Chico State students is reported at 50.2 percent. Further research indicates that 10.9 percent of students in the CSU reported experiencing homelessness one or more times in the last 12 months.  

A gloved hand reaches into a collection of fresh and packaged food and hygiene items.
The Hungry Wildcat Food Pantry continues to provide visitors with fresh fruit and vegetables, boxed and canned food, and hygiene items—only now it’s from a distance.

Social distancing rules and stay-at-home orders have forced many local businesses to reduce employee hours—and even temporarily close—affecting many Chico State students and their incomes. Junior Clint Hollister was a pantry regular before the pandemic, but when classes went virtual, he lost his job in an on-campus lab and it made the pantry’s services more important than ever before. A sustainable manufacturing major, he said he visits nearly every day to load up on healthy food and fresh vegetables that are locally grown.

“If [the food pantry] wasn’t here, I would not be nearly as healthy—mentally or physically—as I am right now,” he said. “This is something I can truly rely on.”

Comparatively, senior Dominique Vega turned to the pantry only recently. Facing financial uncertainty for the remainder of the semester, the criminal justice major said she’s relieved it is available for her should she need it.

“Something like this, that I know I can count on as a student, it makes me so happy to go to this school,” said Vega. “These are odd times, and to have someone still willing to help us is amazing to me.”

The Hungry Wildcat Food Pantry has been helping Chico State students since 2013 and has grown to play a vital role in aiding student success. During the 2018–19 academic year, the pantry served more than 6,000 students (up 50 percent from the previous year) and distributed over 50 tons of food (a 42 percent increase), which was enough to make 83,000 meals. The pantry also provides hygiene products and referrals to campus and community services for students in need. 

When the pantry runs out of certain items for the day, Martinez crosses it out on the plastic sleeve—relieving him of the need to keep track in his head. And after he puts the items in reusable bags, he slides it down the table for an easy, efficient user experience.

“This gets the students through quickly,” he said, “especially since it’s just me back here.”

A student looks at options of fresh vegetables.
“I think it’s really cool the school is willing to provide things like this for us in order to help us succeed,” said senior Shannon Bible. “If people can’t feed themselves, they’re not going to stay and continue to further their education.” (Sean Murphy / Media Relations Coordinator)

Like most of the University’s faculty and staff who are working from home, Hungry Wildcat Food Pantry and Basic Needs Project employees are doing the same—from writing thank-you cards to donors and managing social media to answering CalFresh benefits questions and providing case management for emergency housing. They’re also continuing to solicit support for the pantry (like through its Amazon Wish List), which can use all the help it can get as it serves a growing number of users.

Despite distributing food by himself amid such uncertainty, Martinez said facilitating students’ food provides him with a sense of structure and normalcy.

“The fact that I get to be here every day, serving food like I have been, gives me a sense of, ‘OK, we’re going to get through this, we’re going to get back to normal,’” he said.

Until then, the Hungry Wildcat Food Pantry will continue to provide the campus community with the same healthy food options as before—and that’s a comfort to everyone, including its biggest champions.

“I’m glad that I can come back, I’m glad that I can be here,” Martinez said. “Even with the masks and gloves on and only by myself, I’d rather be here than just home.”

The Hungry Wildcat Food Pantry is located in Student Services Center Room 196 and is open Monday through Friday from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Users can also get their “Grab-and-Go Bags” by appointment by calling 530-898-4098.