Staff, students join forces to combat food insecurity

GRCC food distribution has continued since March

Lina Blair, director or Student Life and Conduct, hands a bag to Sandy Gentry, assistant to the dean of student success and retention

As they have every week since March, a crew of devoted volunteers recently passed out bags of food and necessities to GRCC students who pulled up in their vehicles outside of the Student Community Center.

One student, who asked not to be named, said the bags of non-perishable food and fresh produce are helping her make ends meet. She works part time in healthcare, with plans to finish a couple classes at GRCC and work toward a degree in biomedical science at Grand Valley State University. Still, she doesn’t have much extra money for food.

“Food from here has saved me a lot in the last couple months,” she said.

GRCC has held weekly food distributions since the state’s shutdown due to the coronavirus pandemic began in March. Before that, students who faced food insecurity could access the community college’s food pantry in the Student Life Office twice a month, now closed due to the pandemic.

So far, GRCC has provided more than 1,100 bags of non-perishable food along with frozen meat, fruit and eggs. The college also has provided household cleaning and hygiene supplies, baby food, formula, diapers and wipes, and pet food. Plainsong Farm of Rockford is a new partner in the effort, providing 400 pounds of produce including tomatoes, cucumbers, kale, zucchini and eggplants.

Many Students Struggle 

Sandy Gregory, assistant to the dean of student success and retention, busily prepared bags of food for the approximately 60 students who stopped by during the recent two-hour distribution. Gregory is co-champion of the College Action Project, part of GRCC’s strategic plan, which aims to address students’ basic needs. 

Chef Sasha Ahmed, who works in GRCC’s Secchia Institute for Culinary Arts, has been known to share cooking tips for produce like zucchini and squash

Gregory said they’ve seen an uptick in need since March, with more people coming for food at the distributions than regularly came to the pantry. GRCC participated in a 2016 survey that indicated many students face food, housing and financial insecurity. Those results showed 45 percent of students were food insecure; 35 percent were housing insecure and 9 percent were homeless. GRCC is taking part in the survey again this year.

Not having basic needs met makes being successful in school very difficult, Gregory said. 

“We know that students who don’t have their basic needs met are not able to concentrate in class. They are not able to focus on anything but taking care of their needs. We are working to alleviate that where we can and help them be successful.”

Students Helping Students

With support from the Heart of West Michigan United Way and Feeding America West Michigan, the distribution has continued during the summer months, thanks to students themselves. Student group Student Alliance donated $30,000 to fund distributions in June, July and August.

Lina Blair, director of Student Life and Conduct, advises the alliance. On top of the $30,000, the group donated $8,000 toward the food pantry and an emergency student fund. The donated funds come from the Student Activity fee: $10 per semester for full-time students and $5 for part time students

“It was really incredible, just so generous,” Blair said, noting that the group has supported the food pantry for the past several years. “They have become passionate. There’s an awareness happening on campus. They know they are sitting next to their friend or classmate who’s hungry and can’t focus.”

GRCC is working on a plan to continue distribution into the fall and reopen the food pantry when it is deemed safe.

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Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese has worked as a journalist in the Grand Rapids area since 2000. A graduate of Central Michigan University, she has written for The Grand Rapids Press, Advance Newspapers and On-the-Town Magazine. She has been covering the many exciting facets of K-12 public education for School News Network since 2013. Read Erin's full bio or email Erin.

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