In College and Unable to Afford Food, I Stole So I Wouldn’t Go Hungry

Many college students can’t afford food. What extremes would you go through to cure your cravings?

One scorching hot July morning, dank perspiration acted as glue, as I awoke with my clothes stuck to my legs, back, and empty tummy. I had only slept with a delicate, thread-like white sheet, yet the room that I was subleasing over the summer had no air conditioner, no ceiling fan, and no window for Mother Nature to cool my body. Not to mention, the room contained no light switch and the darkness sealed the heat around me like a sauna, an asphyxiating embrace. Suddenly, I was fully aware of the accumulation of sweat in other places I’ve never felt sweat before. Fighting my conscious, I ignored the grueling mechanics within the pit of my stomach. The grinding reminded me of my mother’s molcajete, a stone tool that could best compare to the Mexican version of the mortar and pestle. The feeling of hunger is awfully overpowering, especially in the morning. So much so that I stole my housemate’s food.

The apartment that I stayed in over the summer.

I stole food for breakfast mostly. Every day, I tried to make a big breakfast, one that would stave off my hunger the longest. However, I’d purposefully create different variations of my morning meal just so that my housemates would not directly notice that their food was missing. A typical breakfast included scraps of ham, a little dried out since the packaging did not include a proper seal, a few white eggs, shredded cheese, two hash browns, and a chewy chocolate-chip granola bar to snack on while preparing the meal.

As my food sizzled in the skillet, I’d lock the door, so in case any of my housemates returned, I could quickly turn off the stove, hide away the food in the oven, and scurry away into my room while they fumbled trying to unlock the door. As I stirred my omelet, my eyes transfixed out of the window. My eyebrows elevated a centimeter or two, furrowed with something between apprehension and worry and my eyes glimmered in deceiving delight for all those looking within, never caught a hint of my enslavement to hunger. My thoughts floated into the past, experiences I had as a teenager with my hometown’s local food ministry, which gave out a large and hefty cardboard box full of foods such as beans, cooking oil, a loaf of bread, peanut butter, jam, granola bars, chicken, sausage, tortillas, ground beef, canned soups, fruits, and veggies.

I remembered how every Saturday morning, around eight in the morning, my mother and I would walk five blocks to our local ministry. Usually I pled with my thirteen-year-old sister to go in my place but my mother argued that she was too small to help carry the box of food home, so I always ended up joining my mother to the local ministry. Since my hometown is small, known as Reedley, there is only one public high-school there and everyone knows everyone. I made sure I wore a sweater with a hoodie, even during the blistering hot summers. From a block away of the ministry, anxiety kicked in, my palms started to sweat and I feared someone from my high-school seeing me at the line outside of the ministry. Finding out that I was poor and feeling pity for me was the last thing that I would want anybody to perceive me as. So, I wore my hoodie to conceal my head, asked my mother to hand me my sunglasses from her purse to cover my eyes yet most importantly, disguise my identity. It was at that moment, looking out of the window, that I realized how foolish I had been at that time.

Fearing someone potentially ridiculing me, I worried that I would become an outcast within my high school, yet here I was, now in college, looking out the window and wanting more than anything, some sort of local food bank, local ministry that gave out food, or a food pantry.

Irvine, where I live and attend college, is known to be the land of the wealthy and classy, but the voices of those who struggles are absent and rarely even heard of. That’s why I feel the duty to share my personal issues with food insecurity. A recent national study of 4,000 college students showed that half were able to pay for food or housing, while one in five had gone hungry.

I never asked for help from others. Physically, I looked fine thankfully for the previous year I had hopped on the bandwagon of weight lifting and adopted the “gym-rat” lifestyle so my muscles couldn’t help but protrude, yet when the lifestyle is abandoned, within a few weeks, your body rapidly loses its form and personally, I became a replica of a stick. Yet women, who visit the gym frequently, aim to look like walking sticks, so I had the “ideal” body shape.

A poor diet is linked to weight gain, high cholesterol, and high blood pressure, but it takes a huge toll on mental health that causes massive headaches, depression, and extremely low energy levels.

Psychologically, I felt sluggish for I had put an end to my gym routine, besides I couldn’t afford to purchase protein shake ingredients, fish, and other healthy food options. I often lost sleep for my mind whirled in never-ending circles as I planned how I would attain food throughout the day, but to the outside world, people must have thought that my bags were correlated to my long nights of studying. I felt an excruciating pang of embarrassment initially, but stealing my housemate’s food was the easiest mode of access and the need to fulfill my hunger cancelled out my feelings of guilt.

When my housemates introduced themselves as Ashley and I forget the names of the other two, I asked for their summer session class schedules or if they had jobs and what time their shifts were, and I made sure to ingrain their schedules deep in my memory so I could plan my times to slyly creep into the kitchen and take their food without getting caught.

Ashley dressed like a boy, baggy jean pants with graphic tees, sneakers, and a cap that a gangster would wear. The other two girls always stayed in their bedroom and never made any effort to talk to me. I couldn’t bring myself to disclose my situation to my housemates for the following reasons: I had just met them so I was too timid to share my vulnerabilities, they were unapproachable, and something told me that they just simply wouldn’t be able to understand.

Now you’re probably wondering why I signed up for summer session when I could have just gone home, back with my parents and not have struggled with obtaining food. I had a situation with the financial aid office, long story short, I was placed on “verification category,” which meant that I was to pay UC Irvine the entire previous year that I was awarded, unless I presented the office with all of the required paperwork. I turned in all the paperwork, but there was one last step. My parents’ taxes.

My parents are illegal immigrants, so the idea of filing for taxes scares the hell out of them since they think this will out them and cause their deportation. Additionally, I had to complete summer session if I planned on graduating “on time” or within my four year time frame. As I struggled to beg and inform my mother that she needed to file so I wouldn’t be billed for the entire year, she remained stubborn and refused. Consequently, I had no financial aid for the summer and my parents would only provide me with twenty to fifty dollars for the week. I worked at Yogurtland, but my paychecks would barely cover that months’ worth of rent and nothing else. I was food insecure.

Food insecurity means limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate and safe foods or limited or uncertain ability to acquire acceptable foods in socially acceptable ways. There are different levels to food security. If you’re food secure, that means you have no food access problems or limitations. The second level is called marginal food security which means you have anxiety over food sufficiency or shortage of food in the house and that there is little or no change in diet. Low food security means that there is a reduced quality, variety or desirability of diet without reduced food intake. And the lowest level, the level that I was in that summer, also known as the very low food security or food insecure category which includes disrupted eating patterns and reduced food intake. In fact, in 2010, 14.5% of (17 million) US households were food insecure. Of those, approximately 5% reported very low food security.

The consequences to food insecurity is part of a devastating health complex: poor diet quality, impaired cognitive development, impaired academic performance, psychosocial dysfunction, increased risk for chronic disease, and poor overall health.

Contradictory to the stats, I received straight As and enrolled within twelve units. I also was working at Yogurtland but my paychecks went straight into rent or other bills, often times I had to ask my parents to help complete the rest of the month’s rent since minimum wage was not cutting it. And lastly, I was taking the KUCI training program, UCI’s college radio station, to become a PA (talk) host and an assistant to two news shows. Fortunately, I kept up academically, but other personal aspects fell drastically apart.

For starters, I was able to keep up the daily routine of stealing bits of food from my housemates, but within a matter of a few weeks, my cover was blown. As most college students usually don’t have the healthiest food choices stocked in their homes, I’d open the fridge and find small, green bottles of Jager Meifter and other alcoholic drinks. Slices of chocolate cake stored in their plastic Albertson’s containers, some cheddar and mozzarella cheese sticks individually wrapped, peanut butter and chocolate pop tarts, and other snacks. My diet consisted of foods loaded with sugar and no nutritional value. Breakfast was the only meal that I reaped nutritional benefits of.

Additionally, I didn’t own a car and couldn’t rely on transportation so I ate mostly fast-food. The nearest food center was the University Town Center, but the center only had one healthy supermarket known as Trader Joes that can be quite expensive. Taco Bell, Jack in the Box, and Chick-Fil-A were my go-to places since these places were nearby and cheap. A survey usually would accompany the receipt and often times these surveys were my salvation to my hunger.

Moreover, while working at Yogurtland, I’d hope that customers would leave their food behind, which on the rare occasion did happen. Once, a couple came into Yogurtland, the man had a pizza from Blaze and the lady carried a bag that I identified with an expensive seafood place known as Slap Fish. They left their goodies on a table and filled their cups with yogurt, as the couple paid, the idea of reminding the couple of their food crossed my mind, but quickly was dismissed. That had to be the best meal of my entire summer.

After a few weeks of stealing ham, eggs, Cup of Noodles, Fruit Roll Ups, and Klondike Ice Cream Bars, I woke up, hungry and sweaty one morning and came upon an orange Post-It note tacked on the fridge that read in all bold, capital letters, ‘STOP EATING OUR SHIT!!!’ Even though my name was not on the note, I knew that whoever wrote the note, wrote the note for me. I felt helpless, outcast, and mostly embarrassed, but I didn’t want to talk to them about my food insecurity since the topic was much too humiliating.

Since the day of the note, I could never muster the courage to look at my housemates in the eyes, even more so, greet them. Actually, whenever I came into the apartment, they’d briefly greet me and turn away and continue on with their business, if my roommates came into the room while I was there, they’d quickly collect their blankets, pillows, and clothes for the next day and sleep out on the futon in the living room. Socially, my world fell apart. Not only that, but my ribs started to show and I began to lose shape. Purple bags developed under my eyes for I continuously lost sleep stressing over what I was going to eat throughout the day, the next day. As a student of UC Irvine, a resident of the Orange County, I felt rock-bottom poor.

According to UCI Student Affairs Survey, 48% of respondents asked about food security levels categorized themselves as high/marginal food insecurity, while 20% said they were experiencing very low food insecurities. Furthermore, 67% of UCI students who are considered historically underserved racial/ethnic groups are at highest risk of food insecurity and 63% of UCI students that are undergrads, particularly in their second or third years are the second group that are at risk of food insecurities. Luckily, the Global Food Initiative is a system wide initiative targeting all UC’s and harnessing its resources to address one of the critical issues of our time: How to sustainably and nutritiously feed a world population expected to reach 8 billion by 2025.

The main person behind all this is UC President Janet Napolitano and chancellors from all 10 campuses, they are committed to build a program that is committed to expand research and share the best practices to improve the food system. The initiative aims to “rally the broad UC community across a wide range of disciplines to work toward putting the world on a path to sustainably and nutritiously feed itself.” President Napolitano and chancellors are working to help individuals and communities access safe, affordable and nutritious food (Andrea Gutierrez). The plan was able to arise into action that ultimately helped me and many other students who are food insecure.

Throughout the years of 2011–2014, SOAR students talked about the need for a food pantry, where students can come in once a week and collect canned goods, energy bars, etc. for free and no questions asked.

In 2014, UCI GFI Fellows: Jennifer, Alex, Jessica/SOAR explore the possibility of a pantry.

During the spring of 2015, food security week of awareness is hosted and with 1,000 signatures, the food pantry was installed in the SOAR office. It’s really tiny, just two wide shelves that are just a foot taller than I am (I’m 5’ 4”) lodged in the corner of a room. Andrea is the head or lead coordinator of the food pantry, a cherry-red lipped, stout lady with a smile adorning her face. She wears chandelier earrings and giggles in between phrases.

The pantry was opened during the fall of 2015, October 5th and Andrea holds high visions for the pantry.

Andrea (left) and I at the UCI Mobile Food Bank in Santa Ana

She plans to have a spring 2016 ASUCI Student Fee Referendum on Food Security that will promise the building of a central or bigger food pantry that will contain fresh produce, toiletries, and non-perishables. She also envisions continuing the holistic food security approach in which the food is completely free and she does not bother with obtaining personal or intrusive information for paperwork purposes. She hopes to hire a full-time professional staff, graduate fellows, and/or student workers.

The campaign will begin in the beginning of spring quarter and UCI students can begin voting for this referendum to pass, online during the 4th week of spring quarter for they only need 20% of votes to have the referendum qualify.

At the end of summer, around September, I finally moved out of my sublease and my parents followed through with filing their taxes, so I didn’t need to pay $30,000+ that the financial aid had threatened to charge me with.

While packing away my belongings in boxes, my housemates made no comments nor expressed their feelings to my departure, had they made a comment about how I felt about my stay, I would have revealed my struggle. The looming feeling of tenseness and awkwardness filled the air and not a single good bye was exchanged from either one us. I felt a surging wave of relief to be leaving and reluctance to move into my new apartment with my close friends, friends that I knew would understand my situation and offer a helping hand.

On Saturday, December 5th, Andrea invited me to the UCI mobile food pantry located in Santa Ana. Helin and Teresa were two other UCI students who joined us and also identify as food insecure. Helin’s tight, curly, brown, ringlets clashed beautifully against her dark skin full of craters of the remains of her severe acne. She spoke primarily Spanish but in a cheerful way. Her lips seemed to be permanently lifted upwards which disclosed one dimple crinkle. I noticed her teeth were perfectly straight and a humble glow radiated. Her smile hides away her own struggles. She lives in Tustin with her boyfriend and an unknown family to keep the rent bill at a minimum. Most surprisingly, Helin bikes every day to and from UCI.

Teresa (far right), Helin (in the middle), and I at the UCI Mobile Food Bank

“Every time Helin comes to SOAR, she just falls asleep between her classes,” Andrea says while Helin covers her mouth and giggles.

At the mobile food bank, we line up and receive a different colored card that determines when we enter the arena to receive free food. Majority of the women speak Spanish and come close to colliding their strollers against another stroller. Crying babies and talkative Spanish ladies remind me of the local food ministry from my hometown.

As I step closer and closer to the opening of the arena where the bags of food will be given out, I draw in the fresh, crisp air. I let in the smell of sharp ripeness, instead of worrying about how others perceive me.

Here, the wait for food feels like a stretch of a small eternity. Yet, in my quiet contemplation, I think about the bountiful effort that Andrea put into the opening of the food pantry on campus, and the connection that I built with her and other students who completely understand my struggles. It is as if God’s whispers surrounded us, wanting to better our lives, and help us feel full again.