Rams Resource Center opens on FSU campus

Margaret Richardson / THE GATEPOST

In an effort to combat student hunger on campus, a food pantry has opened at Framingham State.  The Rams Resource Center (RRC) officially opened on Sept. 24.

The center is located on the first floor of West Hall with an exterior door near the Maynard Road parking lot.

RRC is now open to anyone in the FSU community who needs assistance. The pantry is stocked with non-perishable food and toiletries – including tampons/pads, shampoo and conditioner, and body wash.

During the grand opening, community members were invited to tour the pantry. President F. Javier Cevallos, along with RRC student volunteers and members of the administration, cut a ribbon to signify the opening of the center.

Cevallos said, “This was a long time coming. I am so proud.”

Michelle Yestrepsky, coordinator of student support initiatives, has been working since 2015 as the “single point of contact” for students with food or housing insecurities. She is responsible for determining the prevalence of food insecurity on campus.

According to the USDA, food insecurity is defined as disrupted eating patterns and a lack of regular access to nutritional food due to financial strain.

She said, “Opening the Rams Resource Center was incredibly important because the data shows that students cannot thrive if they are hungry. Their grades suffer, and they suffer outside of classes. We want to alleviate that if we can.”

Yestrepsky coordinates the operation of the RRC and she assisted in raising $8,849 for supplies to run the center, including cleaning products, fencing, and a computer to log information. Meg Nowak, dean of students, and Lorretta Holloway, vice president of enrollment and student development, allocated money from their budgets to the center. Additionally, money was raised through private donations and fundraising.

The RRC has a board of directors who work together to plan and execute the fundraising and collection of supplies. This board includes staff and administrators at Framingham State.

Yestrepsky said all the food was donated, except for $236 of groceries. Over the summer, through online donations, the center collected 1,115 pounds of food and supplies from faculty and staff, exceeding the goal of 500 pounds. As of opening day, the center had a total of 1,636 pounds of food.

On the first day the center was open, three community members visited and took supplies. On the second day of operation, Sept. 26, 18 people visited the center.

The center is currently open Mondays from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and Wednesdays from 1:30 p.m. to 5 p.m.

According to Yestrepsky, when patrons enter the RRC, they are required to swipe their FSU ID. She said this data is collected daily and kept entirely confidential. Yestrepsky said the data is used to determine the best way to serve those using the pantry – based on the number of IDs swiped and how often the center is being utilized.

She said the data can help the board of directors decide if the hours or number of staff members working at the pantry are sufficient.

The data isn’t used to follow up with people who visit the pantry or to identify FSU community members in any way, Yestrepsky said.

She said for each visit to the pantry, visitors are allowed to take one tote bag full of dry goods as well as four personal items. The items are weighed and tracked to keep a record of the goods entering and exiting the facility.

Additionally, each visitor is given a survey to fill out and hand back to a volunteer. The survey is used to tailor the items available and hours of the center to benefit those who visit, she said.

Yestrepsky said the RRC currently has 18 volunteers, including students, faculty, and staff. Volunteers were required to attend mandatory trainings before beginning work. These sessions focused on preparing volunteers with the information needed to remain professional and confidential when interacting with customers coming to the center.

Yestrepsky said the volunteers are prohibited from sharing any information about people who come to the center.

RRC student volunteer Bruna Barbalho, a junior, said she volunteered at the center because she wanted to explore volunteer opportunities on campus. “I have the privilege to live at home and have regular access to food. Students might not have someone to go to, and it’s really important that they do.”

Yestrepsky designed a part-time job at the center for a student worker. Zaafira Kazi, the RRC student coordinator, is responsible for marketing the center to students and raising awareness.

Kazi, a sophomore, said she was in a situation last year in which she thought she might need food and housing assistance. She reached out to Yestrepsky and said she was “incredibly helpful.”

Kazi added, “I didn’t end up needing that support, but I think it’s really important to be able to seek help and have someone guide you through a tough time.”

In an effort to assess the levels of food insecurity among students, Yestrepsky conducted a student survey in 2017.

Four-hundred-ninety-three students responded.

One-hundred-sixty students, or 32 percent, indicated they “often” or “sometimes” skipped a meal because they didn’t have enough money to buy food.

At the time of the survey, Yestrepsky said 75 survey respondents, or 15 percent, were “likely or very likely” to use a food pantry, and 138 were “unsure.”

Glenn Cochran, director of residence life and associate dean of students, and a member of the RRC board of directors, said, “The research Michelle did shows a need. We have students who are trying their best here, and they shouldn’t be going hungry. We want to help them to be successful.”

A more informal survey of FSU students was conducted in April of 2018 by the Wisconsin Hope Lab (WHL). The survey of 177 FSU students found that 35 percent had “low or very low food security.”

WHL conducted a more comprehensive survey in the fall of 2017. The survey was administered to 15 community colleges and eight state universities in Massachusetts to determine rates of food insecurity among college-aged students. Of the 129,489 students to whom the survey was sent, 8,333 responded.

Thirty-nine percent of respondents at state universities indicated they could not afford to eat balanced meals.

The survey found that 24 percent of respondents at the eight universities skipped meals because they didn’t have enough money to buy food. 

Linda Vaden-Goad, provost and vice president of academic affairs, said, “We are all about student support here. We want to give the students what they like to have, what they need to have – and that is food. We never want a student to go to class hungry.”

Efforts to combat food insecurity are underway on campuses around the state. North Shore Community College (NSCC) President Patricia Gentile said providing students with food and housing is one of “the most pressing issues that needs to be addressed.”

Gentile said in recent years, there have been efforts on the Lynn and Danvers campuses to more widely promote the available services. NSCC offers meal vouchers for students and hosts a pop-up food pantry once a month on both campuses.

She said, “We don’t want there to be any stigma attached to using the food pantry, so we encourage faculty and staff to openly attend the pop-ups to show the students there is no shame in needing assistance.”

Gentile also said NSCC is in negotiations with Salem State to use the dorms on its campus to house homeless students.

She said while the need for housing and food is “greater” for students who attend community colleges, the state-wide effort to combat food and housing insecurity is important for every institution to address. 

Katy Abel, associate commissioner for external affairs for the Department of Higher Education (DHE), manages the state-wide efforts to combat college student food insecurity in Massachusetts. Abel oversees policy implementation at universities focused on assisting students in their food and housing needs.

Abel said the DHE is impressed by the number of college campuses around Massachusetts that have responded to student hunger with food pantries, but “we need to be doing more. Even the people who run these food pantries will tell you – this isn’t enough.”

She added in order to address the food and housing insecurity students are facing, the state must address the root cause of the problem – school and housing costs. “As we look for ways to reduce the cost of college, we [will be] putting more money in the pockets of students, which means hopefully, they have more money for basic necessities like food and shelter.”

She said Framingham State is one of the state’s “leader campuses” in addressing food insecurity.

Ben Carrington, senior and SGA president, said the organization’s “main goal is to spread awareness to students and different clubs on campus. I think this is a great resource on campus that has already been getting use, but of course it is sad that this is a real challenge that we face. No student should have to struggle for basic needs such as food, water, and other resources.”

Holloway, vice president for enrollment and student development and co-chair of the RRC board of directors, said she was “not sure the food pantry would ever happen. We were looking for a space for such a long time – we even considered a tiny room in the library at one point.”

She added, “Michelle’s work here is inspiring. It truly brings tears to my eyes thinking about this. This shows all of her hard work paid off.”

Holloway added the next step to promoting the food pantry is to normalize taking supplies from the center. “We want this to be something that people just do. There’s no shame here, and this is here for those students who need that help.”

At a Board of Trustees’ meeting on Sept. 26, Holloway said volunteers and board members of the RRC are normalizing the center by handing out bags with the RRC logo to everyone on campus. The hope is to make patrons comfortable carrying the bags around campus.

RRC student volunteer Rebecca Goodell, a sophomore and nutrition major, said she wanted to explore volunteer opportunities that were in her field of study. She said, “This is a great opportunity for students who can’t afford food to get help, and I wanted to lend a hand in any way I could.”

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