Chico State’s Hungry Wildcat Food Pantry Responds

During the natural emergency of the Camp Fire, much of Chico closed until the chaos subsided and the smoke cleared. Although California State University, Chico, was shuttered for two weeks after the fire, the emergency centers were open immediately for assistance, among them the Chico State Hungry Wildcat Food Pantry.

During those busy days, the Food Pantry provided students and community members with N95 masks and support, even when the air quality sky-rocketed into hazardous levels. With more than 190 students displaced by the fire, the Pantry still continues to offer supplemental food, CalFresh enrollments, emergency and transitional housing placements, and community referrals to students affected by the Camp Fire.

“No one can ever be prepared for such a disaster. . . but we were as prepared as we could be in a lot of ways when the disaster happened,” said Joe Picard, administrator of the Basic Needs program, which includes the Hungry Wildcat Food Pantry. Even now, “a day doesn’t go by that we’re not working with a student impacted by the fire.”

The Food Pantry was established in 2013 by Kathleen Moroney. To house it in her office, she removed books and ledgers from her shelving unit and replaced them with canned food. Joe Picard jumped on board and began sewing pieces of the basic needs puzzle together. The Basic Needs program now also finds short-term housing for homeless students and emergency funds for students in crisis. Picard said, “There was a need, so without permission, we just started acting.”

Food banks from all over the Bay area have ramped up their deliveries to Wildcat Pantry since the Camp Fire. Student staff and volunteers wheel carts of food to various pop-up pantries around campus.

“A day doesn’t go by that we’re not working with a student impacted by the fire.”
—Joe Picard, administrator of the Basic Needs program, which includes the Hungry Wildcat Food Pantry

Picard brought Lee Altier’s Organic Vegetable Project (OVP) on the University Farm into the Food Pantry part of the operation. “Increasing access to organic vegetables and really healthy produce would augment the shelf stable food that [Moroney] was offering in her office,” Picard reasoned. “So we ran the pantry for four years from her office and then we got a permanent location in June 2017.” Since January 2018, the Hungry Wildcat Food Pantry has thrived inside the Student Services Center at Chico State, from where its staff supply available food all over campus. One of almost 700 college and university pantries throughout the country doing this type of work, the Pantry will serve more than 6,000 students this year.

The Hungry Wildcat Food Pantry’s space in the Student Services Center holds 600 square feet of refrigeration, freezer, and dry good storage. To receive food, students visit the pantry, as well as pop-up pantries across campus.

Sometimes these pop-ups result from a “food rescuing” mission. Picard gave an example: “Every once in awhile, a produce company will donate over 1,000 pounds of bananas that will date out in about 72 hours.” Student volunteers and student-paid staff load those bananas up, “and within 24 hours, instead of ending up in a dumpster or at a pig farm, they’re actually in smoothies and in college students’ bellies.”

From the students’ perspective, the program is simple: they stop by a pantry station, sign in, and shop for what they need in a non-judgemental, confidential, honor-based system. Goods offered through the pantry include fresh vegetables from the OVP, shelf-stable food staples, diapers, feminine hygiene products, and even condoms from the Student Health Center.

Volunteers load a truck headed to Concow after the fire.

From Picard’s perspective, behind students’ easy way of accessing these products lie planning, coordinating, and community building. Every month, the Hungry Wildcat Food Pantry purchases a large shipment of food from the Food Bank of Contra Costa and Solano Counties: eggs, frozen meat, canned food and soups, as well as dry goods like rice, beans, and pasta. Beyond this standard monthly shipment and especially since the Camp Fire, other Feeding America affiliates, including food banks of Santa Clara and San Mateo, San Joaquin, San Francisco, and Marin counties, drive up to Chico State in their food-filled cars and trucks and in long 51-foot trucks carrying stacked pallets of food. Every Saturday, folks like Picard, student employees, and volunteers work the pantries to keep up with the heightened demand since the Camp Fire.

Just the other week, the Hungry Wildcat Food Pantry received over three tons of food. That’s a lot of food for Picard and a team of just six paid students, twenty dedicated student volunteers, and about twelve community and university staff volunteers to move. “It is challenging. This is the real work. People realize it’s more than just a paycheck or a ‘thank you, volunteer’ thing. It’s definitely an adventure. . . . We are building a giving community.”