Origins: UNLV

Our pantry’s story truly starts with the nation’s Great Recession. Illegal and immoral actions on the part of our largest financial institutions caused a recession of wages, widespread unemployment and the loss of a large swath of homes. 2007-2010 saw statewide spending cuts for education with a 30% reduction in state funding for UNLV. We stopped hiring, encouraged retirements, bought out contracts, and cut department budgets and staffing. Students felt the impact of these actions throughout the campus. Departing professors calledin their book loans, administrative professionals kept hawk-like awareness of every ream of printer paper, H.R. suddenly had all kinds of free time for trashcan basketball when not processing adjunct faculty applications. All of this took place before academics were directly cut. In 2011-2012 whole departments were lost, budget cuts to individual departments ranged from 5 to 7 figures. My department alone, Community Health Sciences, cut about 180k, while our College of Liberal Arts cut about 1.2 million. Faculty staffing on campus was cut by between 1/3 to 1/2. Entire programs were eliminated such as Sports Ed Leadership (BS in Physical Education), Recreation and Sports Management, Informatics, Urban Horticulture and others. The dean of the business school resigned in 2012 directly citing our financial situation. Since the implementation of cuts, classified/professional staff endured the following; loss of longevity pay, the implementation of furloughs, the loss of step increases (Currently returning but not every staff member until summer 2015.), a 5% pay cut with (2.5% returned), a restructuring of healthcare benefits and rise in insurance premiums. Currently there are reports of a reduction in contributions to retirement and the elimination of vision as a healthcare benefit. As the semesters chugged along, among the classified/professional staff and faculty, it was not out of place at the time to say that morale had sunk campus-wide.

For students, costs were rising, choices were shrinking, and some claimed that quality lessened. Between 2002-2012 student tuition was increased 142%. Between 2007 and 2011 it was raised 73% and 13% in 2011 alone. The cost of attendance for residents went from $2,370 in 2002 to $5,740 in 2012. Recently an undergraduate tuition increase of 17% over the next 4 years was approved. Graduate students are also facing a 4% increase. A consistent hardship for some students was that of our graduate assistantships. Current compensation pays less than half of the national average. A current UNLV GA is $1,300 with a take home of $1,150 a month. This does include a reduction in tuition of around 60% and student health insurance. Campus GA contracts are only 9 months in duration so not only is the employment compensation roughly 1/2 that of the national average of $23,000/year, students who cannot get the additional summer extension must find other work, often disrupting their studies and taking them away from the academic environment some may prefer. During my undergraduate years I lived with a woman attending the University of Washington and she earned $22,000/year as a doctoral student researcher. That was 15 years ago. Another difficulty for students drawing an income from campus is healthcare. The student health insurance plan is unaffordable to use if one needs healthcare off campus. The deductible cost for services that cannot be handled by the on-campus clinic increased from $1,650 for the 2013/14 school year to $3,750 the following year, a 227% increase. Another concern was that campus administration is not informed of the rates until the insurance booklets arrive. If a graduate student does not have outside income and has medical conditions requiring off-campus medical care, they must resort to choosing what major costs can be done without. After rent and electricity these are commonly food and healthcare. While not agreeing with every aspect, the relationship between student loans and tuition costs is covered well by Matt Taibbi in the article “Ripping Off Young America: The College-Loan Scandal”.

While the healthcare situation has undergone changes that allow graduates assistants to qualify for Medicaid based on the GA compensation rate, the other large shift has been in student demographics. It is important to realize that as national unemployment numbers soared, college enrollment numbers did as well. Many of those first time and returning students were not simply taking an education vacation; they turned to education to make themselves better. Enrollment decisions based on financial aid could arguably be an influence for a portion of those students who would have not otherwise decided to expand their academic study. Financial aid could be used as a makeshift economic safety net.

These mentioned circumstances and others only strengthen the rationale for increasing student services on campus beyond that of financial aid, in a more direct and interactive way to help students move toward graduation. This is paramount for our institution as our funding formula is now based on graduation rates and not simply on enrollment numbers.

In November 2010, Dr. Casas of our History Department worked with others in administration, H.R., the Graduate Association, and a few mature students to hold the first food drive and distribution of 1,700 items. 41 staff and students picked up non-perishables. According to a short survey filled out by the majority of the clients, they have families: the food drive provided food for at least 137 individuals. The majority of individuals who availed themselves of the food bank were classified personnel with families, which suggested that some employees at UNLV were finding it difficult to provide sufficiently for their families.

Throughout spring and summer 2011, monthly food drives were maintained while efforts to secure a physical space took place. The start of the fall semester saw the opening of our first location. From the first pantry space until Jan 2014, food was donated in campus bins, picked up from events, or purchased in person with donated funds from grocery stores. Large events took place a few times a year and bins were emptied weekly, but the majority of food was shopped for every other week. Directly across the street from the campus is a two-story commercial building. Our first space was quite limited; around 30′ by 10′, with a similar sized room in back. The back held the cans that the front room could not hold and was used for storage and to restock the supply of cans. All non-canned food was put out. The president of the pantry during fall 2011 was in his final semester of his degree program. He maintained pantry hours with help from his girlfriend and me, the pantry’s first full time volunteer and second president. During winter 2012, the pantry re-located across the hallway into the community’s old Kinkos. Remember Kinkos? The space was enormous. It was also without a functioning HVAC system, overhead lighting, a waterproof roof, and had elevator access that reeked of used cooking oil and urine. After grabbing some oil lamps and moving the shelves between the falling ceiling tiles we got to work trying to fill the place up. A vast array of student orgs came together to fill pallets of food for us to distribute. We worked on setting up payroll deductions, our non-profit status with the help of a law school faculty member, and lobbying the undergraduate student council for some funding. The summer saw temperatures climb to around 104 inside the pantry. I sat outside most of those days in hopes of an occasional breeze to radiate my water and sweat soaked bandana draped around my neck. From what I read 106 was the breaking point at which I would have had to start throwing items away. We did eventually obtain 2 portable A/C units that brought it down to around 92, much better. On Sept 11th of that year the campus saw flooding due to poor infrastructure design both on and off campus. The pantry was on the second floor and escaped any loss beyond that of wet floors. Those on the first floor were entirely wipedout since they sat below street level. A half dozen drain pipes with finger sized grate-holes covering them were quickly blocked by various debris and tiny landscape rocks that make up a lot of our campus grounds.

During the winter of 2012 we moved again, this time onto campus. Although the pantry was not universally revered as a valued campus asset, consistent backing from the then president and strong support from the Provost and the office of academic space made this possible. The total area was smaller and broken up into 4 standard sized office spaces. While the amenities were luxurious in comparison, the separation came with its own issues related to client proximity and monitoring. Two are used as distribution rooms, one for storage, and the other as an office. Eventually the office came to be used for distribution as well. A monumental contribution was made through silent auction fundraising events at clubs on the strip put on by our hotel marketing students during the 2012 & 2013 summers. During 2013, an effort was made to clarify a non-discrimination policy of the local food bank. As we understood it, they would not partner with organizations that imposed association rules as to who they allowed to be clients. Since our pantry was only open to campus members we did not pursue a partnership with the bank early on. The latter end of the year saw progress on that front and by the start of the spring 2014 semester we were fully partnered. Since then we have been able to purchase a greater quantity of food with the resources we have. Our offerings have expanded to include various produce items and occasionally, boxes of hygiene items, saving many additional hundreds of dollars for ourclients. During summer 2014, University officials from around the country toured the campus and held discussions regarding our institution’s Tier 1 status efforts. Since, the pantry has been cast in a new light and reflects a positive component assisting the campus community. Also during that summer, I trained 2 undergraduate students to take my place. Since fall, they have done excellent work and the three of us have successfully lobbied for additional income streams to the pantry and the passage of the undergraduate emergency retention grant. We are currently in discussions to bring in refrigerators and/or freezers that will allow us to expand our offerings to bring our clients closer to meals made from whole foods. As a result of these efforts, from the pantry’s opening through summer 2014 the pantry has served over 1,900 clients who have in turn fed over 5,000. Our client make-up for the first 2 years held very steady at 2/3 staff and 1/3 students. But from fall 2013 to summer 2014 students have increased slightly to students being 38.3% and staff representing 61.7%. Since the partnership with the local food bank in January 2014 through August, we have placed 34 orders and distributed 22,224 lbs of food, costing $4,435. Anecdotal review of this school year’s client intake forms show that our mean weekly service rates may increase from about 33 to over 40.

Our distribution model from the start has been that of free choice, or first come first serve, and anonymity has been a primary concern. We do not check any form of association by our clients. As a result of our model, we have had client-lines from the early days. The lines vary from week to week but it appears that the mean number waiting has increased from around 5-10 to 15-20, with 80-90% of that day’s clients coming and waiting for us to open.

If anyone has any questions about the content of this story or anything else pantry related please let me know. I am specifically interested in hearing about distribution models and how to refine practices while maintaining equal fairness to all clients. I am also interested in discussing how to handle client complaints about other clients’ taking-behaviors under a free choice model. If anyone has managed to wrangle a graduate assistantship out of running the pantry I would like to know that as well. Please allow me some time to reply.

Joseph Nickelson

nickels@unlv.nevada.edu

Originally published by Clare Cady June 2, 2015

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