ASU meets students where they are during challenging times

From immediate meals to emergency financial aid, services for students in need abound

Of the many societal issues the pandemic has thrown into relief over the past year, some of the most pressing are food and housing insecurity. Any number of things can contribute to these problems, and no one — including college students — is exempt from the risk.

At Arizona State University, resources for students in need abound, from same-day hot meal cards to emergency financial aid to grab-and-go bags of nonperishable food items and hygiene products.

“Our approach is to analyze the entirety of the situation (when a student is in need) so that we can respond holistically,” said Joanne Vogel, vice president of student services.

To that end, Vogel and colleagues helped facilitate an extensive survey of students in fall 2020 as part of the Arizona Board of Regents Food Insecurity and Housing Work Group. In March, when they get the results, not only will they be able to see how ASU compares to other universities nationwide, they’ll be able to reassess strategies and better allocate resources in response to how students’ needs have changed as a result of the pandemic. 

“This survey has really allowed everyone to come to the table so that we can learn from each other, because it's not a one-size-fits-all solution,” said Sharon Smith, dean of students at ASU’s Downtown Phoenix campus and fellow member of the ABOR work group.

vast number of services are available to students through the Dean of Students Office, which has locations on each of the four campuses in metro Phoenix. Students can simply walk in during office hours or email or call after hours.

“At the Dean of Student's Office, we really try to get down to the underlying reason for why a student has a need,” Smith continued. “So whether it's food insecurity, housing, connecting them with community resources or repackaging their financial aid, our goal is to try to really figure out how to solve the issue with each student.”

In fact, ASU will work with a student to reevaluate their financial aid package at any time, something that, according to Smith and Vogel, is “almost unheard of” in higher education. And for more immediate needs, like a sudden job loss or even just a hot meal, the Dean of Students Office has everything from emergency funds to meal cards and gift cards that in most cases can be picked up and used the same day.

“We always try to respond immediately, whether it’s 6 o'clock at night or 6 in the morning,” Smith said.

“And we don't forget our students who are learning virtually either,” Vogel added. “If a student who is out of state has a need, we help them where they’re at, too. Many of the folks on our team of case managers have social work experience and know how to network with local resources, depending on where that student is located.”

Another place on-campus students can turn to in an emergency is the Pitchfork Pantry, which has been providing nonperishable food items to students in need since it was founded in 2017. During the fall 2020 semester, as COVID-19 exacerbated issues related to food access, the team at Pitchfork Pantry had to get creative to expand their reach. Over the past few months, they have partnered with University Academic Success Programs (UASP) and American Indian Student Support Services (AISSS) and have hosted several weekend drive-thru pop-up markets to help them better meet students’ needs.

“Academics is the focus of our program, but we know students can’t focus on academics if they’re hungry or if they’re worried about where their next meal is going to come from,” said Ivette Chavez, director of UASP. “It was just a natural partnership for us.”

The same is true for AISSS, according to Laura Gonzales-Macias, interim executive director: “Food insecurity is not new for Indigenous populations; it existed before COVID, and it’s still going to be a challenge afterward. Our goal at AISSS is to work with Indigenous students to help them achieve their academic goals and get to a place where they can take care of themselves, their families and their communities. Partnering with Pitchfork Pantry is only going to help us augment those efforts.”

In the few years it has existed, Pitchfork Pantry has expanded its services from a single location on the Tempe campus to all four campuses, with several options for students to get food. There’s the permanent “shopping location” on the Downtown Phoenix campus, where students can shop and choose their own items. Then there are the weekend pop-up markets, any of the four campuses’ UASP tutoring centers and the AISSS location in Discovery Hall on the Tempe campus, all of which provide students with a prepacked bag of enough nonperishable items to last for two days.

“The pack is not ideal, because regardless of your food situation, every student should have the opportunity to choose what they want to eat,” said Maureen McCoy, College of Health Solutions lecturer and academic adviser for Pitchfork Pantry. But she’s hoping that soon, they’ll be able to add more permanent locations, in addition to the Downtown Phoenix one, so that students can do just that.

The team members at the pantry are also mindful of the variety of dietary needs and restrictions students may have.

“We have vegetarian and gluten-free bags, and we're also attempting to expand to include options like halal and kosher,” said Lindsay Pacheco, president of Pitchfork Pantry on the Downtown Phoenix campus. In addition, the pantry provides hygiene products, including feminine hygiene, when available. 

There is no limit to how many times a student can use Pitchfork Pantry’s services, but they are required to fill out a general form each time that also gives information about different support systems that are available to them, through the university and elsewhere.

“We really want to let students know there are a lot of supports out there for them besides us. We want to teach them how to use different community resources, as well,” McCoy said.

Currently, Pitchfork Pantry gets most of its supplies from Matthew's Crossing Food Bank in Chandler, Arizona, but the team is always accepting donations of nonperishable food items and basic hygiene products at all of their locations.

“Commonly needed items are things like pasta, rice, canned fruit, canned meat and protein-rich items like peanut butter,” Pacheco said. “Basically anything you would generally find in your pantry at home that’s nonperishable and easy to make meals with.”

Pitchfork Pantry also accepts monetary donations, which can be given through its ASU Foundation page. Students interested in volunteering can find Pitchfork Pantry on Sun Devil Sync. For information on locations and hours to access the pantry’s services, visit its Facebook or Instagram pages, where members also post helpful recipes and videos.

Top photo: ASU students and Pitchfork Pantry officers (from left to right) Lindsay Pacheco, Muneeza Rashid, Alexandra Carrillo and Hannah Rater at a pop-up market on ASU's Tempe Campus in November 2020. Photo courtesy Lindsay Pacheco.