CPO Food Closet: Combating Food Insecurity at UCLA

According to a 2018 #RealCollege survey, food insecurity is a serious problem on college campuses and affects an estimated 45% of all students. When applied to UCLA’s undergraduate and graduate population, that accounts for more than 20,000 students. In response to this pressing issue of student hunger, various student organizations and campus departments, such as the UCLA Community Programs Office (CPO) has worked to provide students with access to basic needs year-round. But as access to food is insecure, so is their funding. Hence a new basic need has arisen — a consistent, long-term source of funding for one of its most important programs.
Since 2009, CPO has sought to combat food insecurity on campus through its communal Food Closet, which provides free food to students who may be experiencing hunger or having difficulty obtaining food due to financial difficulties. During operating hours, students are welcome to drop by the Food Closet in the Student Activities Center and take whatever they need with full assurance that CPO will maintain their anonymity.
The CPO Food Closet was founded in response to the 2008 economic crisis, during which many students lost access to food due to financial hardship. A student leader helped launch the Food Closet to provide a designated space to store and provide food for students after seeing a trend of food insecurity among his peers.
The Food Closet started off as a single, entirely donation-based cabinet stocked with only instant ramen, Campbell’s soup and Gatorade. In the past 10 years, the Closet has offered a wider variety of items such as fresh produce, breads and grains, canned foods and more. A new dedicated space, called the “Food Closet Annex” was constructed to assist in storing more donations that replenish the Closet on the main level of the Student Activities Center. The CPO Food Closet aims to provide other basic necessities such as toothbrushes, toothpaste, shampoo, conditioner, soap, deodorant and more. CPO Director, Antonio Sandoval ’02, M.A. ’07 said the Food Closet has been able to provide more nutritious foods due to more consistent support from the University and outside donors. Furthermore, it will undergo renovation this year to expand even further by the next academic year.
“The CPO Food Closet has played a huge role in destigmatizing student hunger.”
Nicole Ngaosi ʼ14, M.A. ʼ18, M.S.W. ʼ18, CPO’s Student Affairs Officer, said she has seen an increase in demand for the CPO Food Closet’s services. To address student demand, the CPO Food Closet has provided thousands of pounds of food and other basic necessities to support students in need. She thinks the increase in demand and usage has resulted from students hearing about their service through word of mouth. Additionally, UCLA has enrolled more students who may benefit from additional support such as commuter students or students with dependents. Overall, she thinks that the CPO Food Closet has played a large role in supporting food insecurity.
“As one of the nation’s first food pantries on a college campus, the CPO Food Closet has played a huge role in destigmatizing student hunger,” Ngaosi said. “Students feel more comfortable accessing it without any shame.” The CPO has viewed this increase in demand as an opportunity to explore more creative solutions to serve students who may not always be able to access the Food Closet. For example, the office now also offers a free grocery bundle program and a holiday meal box program.
“While current funding for the Food Closet has been sufficient, it is inconsistent and often fluctuates based on how much donors are willing to give,” said Basic Needs Manager Chidera Izuchukwu ’14. “Having a consistent stream of funding would give peace of mind.”
Sandoval said CPO is in a good position financially to continue providing services, but it still needs to raise money to create an endowment for the food pantry and solidify a permanent base of support.
One way CPO aims to garner longer-term support is by beginning a new collaboration with the UCLA Alumni Association Board of Directors to raise alumni awareness and backing.
Mitra Best ’87, a member of the board, was initially looking for ways to donate professional clothing to CPO when she became aware of the Food Closet and its need for more consistent funding. She began talks with the team behind the Food Closet and members of the board to see what they could do to help meet its needs.
“They don't have the comfort of having an endowed fund that can continue to work and continue to generate funds for them. It really, really depends on the generosity of the alumni to keep it going,” Best said. “And I think among all the important things that we think about every day, top of mind should be that students should not be going hungry because they can't afford to buy food.”
The board has started collecting donations at its meetings and encouraged members and alumni to make personal donations, but ultimately aims to develop a scalable fundraising strategy to secure more large-scale and long-term corporate sponsorships, she said.
“Everyone wants to pitch in and do their part. I think what we need to do as a board is not just look to our own personal giving, but also look at our network and our employers and our broader network of colleagues and clients to get corporate sponsorships. The commodities that we stock the closet with are consumer goods that are produced by companies that may or may not be our clients or places we work,” Best said.
Ann Wang ’13, another member of the Alumni Association board, said they have great potential to work with external partners. She believes that once the board has adopted this initiative as a priority, the rest of the Alumni Association will be spurred on to further educate alumni on the initiative and how they can support it.
“Among all the important things that we think about every day, top of mind should be that students should not be going hungry because they can't afford to buy food.”
“A big part of what the board is passionate about is really making sure that we're running towards not only alumni need, but at times student needs and how we can really fill some of the gaps there,” Wang said. “It was really clear to us that the basic necessities, especially food, are so key. And with the varied financial support from grants and the state (for the Food Closet), we just want to try to see if we can step into that gap. So it's an initiative that Mitra, myself and a few others are excited about bringing to the board.”
Wang hopes alumni all know that they have the opportunity to support the Food Closet either by making personal donations or tapping into their personal and professional networks.
“It's really something that all alumni can do, any time, any day. I think the Food Closet and the team around basic needs have really created such a great program that any alumnus can connect with and support, whether it's by donating things immediately or knowing somebody at a big consumer packaged goods or food-based company,” Wang said. “I think these basic necessities are a huge need and our support is needed for students who just really can't afford them.”
In the spirit of Bruins helping Bruins during this holiday season, consider donating to the UCLA Community Programs Office Food Closet by providing supplies from their list of needed items or by making a financial contribution.
CPO Food Closet
Learn more about the CPO Food Closet.
Make a donation to combat hunger at UCLA.