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Casey Elbert is aware it takes a full belly to focus in school, but her Sonoma State University classmates don’t always have the means to secure nutritional meals.

Facing some of the highest housing costs in the state, students must make a tough choice: go to college full time or sacrifice their academics to earn money for rent and food. Many prefer to skip meals than school.

“It comes down to what students feel is most important,” said Elbert, a senior studying business administration and marketing. “Students really value their education and want to get that diploma. If they feel they can’t afford that nutritious meal, that’s the first (to go).”

Elbert, who also serves as human services director for the student community service program, Join Us Making Progress, hopes to ease hunger on campus through a free food pantry that opened in the Rohnert Park campus’ Zinfandel Village. The university Friday officially unveiled the new Lobo’s Pantry, which is staffed by volunteers from Elbert’s group.

It’s among the growing number of pantries popping up on university and community college campuses nationwide to address food insecurity among students.

According to California State University, all 23 of its campuses run a food pantry or food distribution program. A study released this month by the university system revealed that 42 percent of its students wrestled with food insecurity. The rate was even higher — at 49 percent — for first-generation college students, which make up 37 percent of SSU’s undergraduate population.

For Santa Rosa Junior College, food insecurity isn’t a new problem. The college’s Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society five years ago launched a free food pantry program after members realized how many classmates were going hungry, said Ezbon Jen, club advisor and health science instructor. Many students come from low-income families or have children to care for and are strapped for cash, he said.

The group initially handed out about 600 pounds of food over the course of two days, but the amount has since doubled, said Jen, who was dean of the health sciences department when the pantry first started on a set of tables outside his building. They used their club dues and donations to buy the food.

“If we keep them fed, they’ll be able to finish school sooner and get into the workforce,” he said. “It’s the humanitarian thing to do. … This is our community. We should be taking care of our community.”

Among the nation’s community colleges, half of the students struggled with access to food.

The SRJC pantry now occupies a former coffee kiosk on the first floor of Barnett Hall and is open four days a week, thanks to additional support from the student body government and SRJC Office of Student Equity.

“We’re not giving away junk,” Jen said about the food stocked in the kiosk. “We have fresh stuff, too, like sweet potatoes, carrots, celery, apples and oranges.”

He said the volunteer-run pantry is open for any student. They don’t have to fill out any forms, provide income information or show identification cards, he said. All they ask is that students bring bags to carry the food.

At Lobo’s Pantry, shelves were stocked with applesauce, canned beans and soup, cereal and Clif energy bars. The food was purchased at low cost from the Redwood Empire Food Bank.

They held a soft opening at the end of last semester. Initially, six to eight students came through the doors daily. Ten to 20 students now visit each day, and they are taking more food with them, Elbert said.

“That’s what we want — students feel comfortable and are taking what they need,” she said.

Lobo’s Pantry currently offers nonperishable food and donated hygiene items only. Kimberly Estrada, a senior who serves as the pantry coordinator, said they plan to provide fresh fruits and vegetables in the coming weeks.

She said the pantry is open to all students. They just have to show their student identification cards. Estrada, who’s majoring in criminal justice with a minor in sociology, has been reaching out to students through classroom presentations and social media. She wants to take away the fear and shame associated with seeking help.

“Everything is confidential,” she said. “We want to end the stigma about this. We want students to feel comfortable.”

You can reach Staff Writer Eloísa Ruano González at 707-521-5458 or eloisa.gonzalez@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @eloisanews.

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