Koko Mulder enrolled at Cal a few years ago excited to complete her degree. She moved her two children into and prepared for school. But in the days before classes started, and before financial aid was disbursed, her family ran out of food and out of money.
“My kids were 9 and 11 at the time. It was really scary,” she said. She applied for food stamps, but processing took 12 days. “When you have kids, 12 days is a lot of time without food.”
The experience almost derailed her education; Mulder at first thought she had made a terrible mistake enrolling in college as a single parent.
Instead, it galvanized her to launch a service that has saved many parent-students just like Mulder: the Bear Pantry.
The Bear Pantry is an emergency food bank for University of California, Berkeley students who are parents and on financial aid. It operates out of University Village. Now two years old, the Bear Pantry provides bins of food to low-income Cal students with dependents, if the family finds itself in particular need.
Parents can get a bin of food and vouchers carefully selected to provide the essentials for about three weeks' worth of meals. It has items like cereal, rice, tuna fish, pasta, canned chicken, fruit juice, peanut butter, soups, and macaroni and cheese, as well as gift cards for dairy products and fresh vegetables and fruit.
Mulder and a handful of other volunteers assemble these bins from money and goods donated by organizations around campus and nearby communities.
It might seem surprising just how many people need this help. The Bear Pantry gave out 100 to 150 bins last year, helping 50 to 70 families.
“The things that struck me when I went through that experience were, one, how generous people are and, two, how common my experience was. My cohort of student-parents would say, 'When this happened to me...' and describe what they did,” Mulder said, describing how many of her classmates who were parents faced the same situation. The commonality of that problem led her to seek a solution.
Alice Jordan, program director for student-parent programs at the university, said there are about 350 undergraduates who are parents.
According to Pepper Black, program director for Family Student Housing at University Village, the Cal parent-students facing the biggest obstacles are young single mothers who are often the first in their family to attend college and have traveled far from home to be at Cal. They have no local networks of family helpers and many have very little income.
“This is a very vulnerable demographic group. They are our most vulnerable students,” Black said.
“You know how much pressure there is being a full-time UC Berkeley student? Put on top of that, being a mom,” she continued. Along with studying and attending classes, these students have all the responsibilities of parents, but on limited incomes and limited time.
Right now — late summer and early fall — is usually the most difficult time for parent-students, Black and Mulder said. That is because financial aid for the new academic year has not yet been disbursed but students are running out of the aid funds they received in the spring.
Another group often struggling financially consists of international students here with children and spouses. A smaller group, but one with daunting challenges, is students supporting younger siblings.
One student who was referred to the Bear Pantry is a 21-year-old taking care of four younger siblings while going to Cal as an undergraduate. She is supporting them all.
Another student who turned to the Bear Pantry is an international student whose government was financing his education. But then a military coup happened in his country and the funding for his education was suddenly cut off.
”The assumption is that if you are a UC Berkeley student, then you don’t have problems. When we talk with donors, you have to get past the (first question): ‘What are you talking about, UC Berkeley students with kids and no food?’” Mulder said.
The university recognizes the needs of parent students and runs a retention program for them, as well as the Transfer, Re-entry and Student Parent Center. At the center, people can get advice and referrals to services such as the Bear Pantry.
Fortunately there are also lots of Cal students eager to help others. There’s a plethora of student service organizations that the Bear Pantry taps into, Mulder said. The food bank has been able to thrive on their generosity.
“There are students all around campus who are looking for ways to give back. And there are students on campus in danger of dropping out of school because they don’t have food,” Mulder said. “What I really do is connect the dots.”
Among the most generous and most frequent donors are the Alpha Kappa Delta honor society of UC’s sociology department, the University Health Services TANG Center, the University Section Clubs and several sororities. Within surrounding communities, El Cerrito High School has been particularly supportive, hosting food drives for the past two years.
To receive a Bear Pantry bin, students must be registered at Cal, must have dependents and must show need by bringing a page of their financial aid form. “I ask for that one page with the expected family contribution on it,” Mulder said. Beyond that, students are restricted to two bins a semester.
Donors are asked to give money or specific items. That way the Bear Pantry provides foods it deems essential, and not odd collections of canned goods that people are trying to get rid of.
The food bank works with sororities, for example, in holding food drives for specific items. A sorority will hold a party or event and ask people to bring a jar of tomato sauce, or some other item, as their entry fee. "So we’ll have one sorority collecting tuna fish and another collecting peanut butter,” Mulder said.
Donors or parent students who want to contact the Bear Pantry can email TheBearPantry@berkeley.edu or call 510-776-8486, or visit the Residential & Student Services Center on Monroe Street in University Village. They can also write the Bear Pantry at 100 Cesar Chavez Student Center, Berkeley, CA 94720.
You can also donate to the pantry on PayPal.
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