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Napa Valley College expanding student food bank into Basic Needs Center

What began as an office cabinet filled with Cup Noodles and granola bars became a food pantry for college students in need. This fall, Napa Valley College’s food bank will expand its scope again — to help connect students with the housing and other aid that can make their lives easier, and their studies more successful.

NVC is recasting the two-year school’s Student Food Basket, which opened in 2017, as a Basic Needs Center that will debut in November.

While continuing to provide regular bagfuls of produce, dairy, and packaged goods to food-insecure students, the program will create a centralized, time-saving hub where students can receive various kinds of assistance beyond food and supplies.

The expansion of the aid center’s mission is intended to remove barriers to success for those struggling to find stable housing or get enough to eat — and to provide a place where students can contact social service agencies to apply for nutritional, housing, health and other assistance, according to Benjamin Quesada, manager of NVC’s student life office, who started the school’s food basket four years ago.

“It’s a safe place for them to go where they can feel comfortable getting the resources they need,” he said last week of the program, based in the 1200 Building of the college’s main campus on Highway 221. “You need a functioning department, and that’s where these transitions can happen, to address multiple issues in one place.”

When fully equipped later in the fall, the Basic Needs Center will augment its existing food pantry with a lobby and office space where social service agencies can work with students. Such support can include helping NVC students apply for CalFresh food aid, counseling, housing assistance, financial aid and more.

As part of its expansion, the center is assembling a larger staff to meet its expanded mission, with an office coordinator, temporary employees and student volunteers.

NVC is funding the Basic Needs Center using a share of the $100 million California has reserved in its 2021-22 budget for food and housing security programs at community colleges, as well as a portion of $30 million the state is using to fund and staff basic need centers like Napa's.

The allotment followed a California Community Colleges survey of more than 49,000 students at the state’s two-year schools in May and June of 2020 — in the early stages of the campus and business shutdowns during the coronavirus pandemic — that revealed 57% were enduring food or housing insecurity, or both, with 18% experiencing homelessness. More than half of those surveyed reported reduced income during the COVID-19 emergency, and 41% said they had been laid off, furloughed or had work hours cut.

The growing need to support disadvantaged students beyond donations — amid inflated housing costs and job losses during the coronavirus pandemic — has been illustrated in the struggles some clients have faced in recent months, according to Kyler Thompson, who graduated from NVC earlier this year and now serves as the Basic Needs Center’s office coordinator.

During her time as a student worker packing goods and conducting surveys for the campus food bank, she said, visitors included a deaf client who turned out to be homeless and received help applying for transitional housing, as well as a woman who received Cal Fresh aid with NVC help to support two younger siblings following both their parents’ deaths from COVID-19.

Because a student with one need often faces others, “we want (the center) to be an express hub where people can get what they need, and then focus on their education,” Thompson said.

The Student Food Basket dates to May 2017, when NVC’s Office of Student Life opened a pantry in the Napa campus’ 1200 Building where students could receive two to three bags of donated groceries every 30 days — pasta, grains, beans, canned goods, cereals, tuna, peanut butter and other staples. The pantry receives supplies from Community Action of Napa Valley, operator of the Napa food bank, as well as contributions from Grocery Outlet and other donors.

Non-food essentials are now being donated to and offered at the center, including toiletries, bath items, detergent, study supplies, and basic garments like socks and T-shirts.

According to Quesada, the idea of the food basket stemmed from an encounter with a student who asked him for money after not eating for several days. That student and others began visiting his office after he stocked a cabinet with dry noodles, canned tuna, granola bars and other foodstuffs — starkly illustrating the precarious condition of young people often forced to stretch scarce funds among food, gasoline, tuition and books.

The Food Basket is funded by a grant from California Hunger Free Campuses, a CalFresh grant through Chico State University, and private donations.

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Public Safety Reporter

Howard Yune covers public safety for the Napa Valley Register. He has been a reporter and photographer for the Register since 2011, and previously wrote for the Marysville Appeal-Democrat, Anaheim Bulletin and Coos Bay (Oregon) World.

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