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County public health awards point to Pacific University food pantry

NEWS-TIMES PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER OERTELL - Jared Kawatani stands next to shelves of food that he has collected to help Pacific University students in need.Did you hear the one about the student who survived on Top Ramen for breakfast, lunch and dinner during his freshman year at college?

That might sound like a joke but for some students, it's depressingly close to the truth.

The rigors of full-time schooling can make it impossible to hold a full-time job as well. But many scholars work low-wage, part-time jobs and have huge bills to pay for tuition and living expenses.

"People think, 'Oh, you're a student, you'll be living off Top Ramen for a while and it's okay,'" said Pacific University senior Jared Kawatani. "But it's not okay because everyone should have access to healthy food."

That's why Kawatani started a food pantry on Pacific's campus — to help struggling college students supplement their diets. Actually, the food closet is called Food for All, replacing the term "food pantry," which can have a negative connotation.

Kawatani accepted the "Emerging Public Health Leader" award for his project at a ceremony Tuesday, April 4, presented by the Washington County Department of Health and Human Services. The award recognizes a youth or youth-related group that promotes healthy lifestyle choices and healthy communities.

Kawatani was aware that some students often found themselves "food insecure" — skipping meals, worried about where their next meal is coming from, eating inexpensive but low-quality food, or simply not having enough to eat. But he was surprised by how many students in his "healthy communities" class were food insecure or knew peers experiencing the same problems.

Many choose to put their limited funds into textbooks or tuition bills before meals, Kawatani said. Through class discussions, he learned athletes in particular have trouble getting enough food. Athletes need more calories than non-athletes and often cannot work as much because of time-consuming practice and game schedules. In addition, Pacific doesn't give athletic scholarships.

Many students don't qualify for food stamps but are going hungry, said Kawatani, who hasn't experienced food insecurity himself. "It was eye-opening to hear other peoples' perspectives."

Visiting Portland State University for a conference about a year ago, Kawatani stumbled onto the school's student food pantry and was inspired to start one at Pacific.

"He cares about his fellow students and is concerned about the health of his community," said Stephanie Stokamer, director for the university's Center for Civic Engagement. Stokamer, who nominated Kawatani for the award, describes him as "incredibly capable" and humble.

Food insecurity can affect academic success and achievement, making it difficult to concentrate or forcing students to choose between buying food or buying a bus ticket to class, Stokamer said. "If we want all of our students to be successful — and we do — then we need to do what we can to help."

She said an informal student-conducted survey last year revealed that 45 out of the 57 student respondents reported they had been food insecure at one time or another. While the sampling was likely not representative of the entire student body, Stokamer said, "45 stands on its own as an unacceptable number of people worried about food."

Pacific Exercise Science Professor Katie Dolphin said that while data on food security in college students is scarce, studies have shown that anywhere from 21 to 59 percent of students are food insecure and nearly a quarter of them have borrowed money for food.

The pantry has only been open for a few months, but has had 76 total visits so far and the nearly 30 pantry volunteers have given out about 350 items.

Kawatani recruited the volunteers from university service clubs, civic engagement classes and students in the public health field.

Jessica Dang is a regular student volunteer and member of the school's Circle K club. As a student who's chosen to forgo the university's meal plan for money and dietary reasons, Dang understands the "convenience and added relief of having readily available food," she said. "Not only does it offer assurance to students with food insecurity, but it is also a creative and fun way for students to band together in a common purpose."

Students who've stopped by while Dang has been volunteering have expressed their excitement about the variety of items and having a stable place to get food if their funds fall short.

Kawatani is hoping to secure more fresh produce now that the pantry got a fridge.

Pacific's student senate group donated $800 to the food closet for shelving and initial stocking. Some faculty and staff members have also donated.

Kawatani said he's made some purchases at Grocery Outlet and received a donation from Trader Joe's as well as from Waste Not Food Services, which takes leftover food from businesses and donates to charitable causes.

"It's a basic human right to be able to access good and nutritious food," said Kawatani, who's hoping to use his environmental biology degree to meet the food needs of billions in a sustainable way. "We shouldn't be letting people go hungry."

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