Steve Hoang had more than schoolwork to fret about his first year of college. He went hungry.
“I lost 25 pounds,” said the UC Irvine sophomore. “It was one of my biggest worries, that I wouldn’t have enough to eat.”
The tall, thin 18-year-old was among hundreds of students who lined up this past week to take a peek at UCI’s newly expanded food pantry, intended to help students like him.
Across Southern California and the nation, colleges and universities no longer view the concept of the starving student as an inevitable joke, but a serious issue. To address what’s become known as “food insecurity,” campuses are opening up free pantries.
Some are as small as closets. In fact, UCLA’s pantry is called the Food Closet.
Others began small and grew.
Cal State San Bernardino on Thursday dedicated their renamed Obershaw DEN pantry, which was remodeled and has added refrigeration for perishables.
A day earlier, the UCI campus celebrated the opening of a remodeled pantry touted as the biggest in the UC system. At more than 1,800 square feet, it features not only free food and toiletries but sitting areas, a “kitchenette” with small appliances and a space for weekly food demonstrations and nutrition talks.
There are more than 540 campus food pantries across the U.S. registered with the College and University Food Bank Alliance, which is tracking the trend.
All UC campuses – and all but one of the California state universities – now have food pantries, as do many community colleges.
Even some pricey private colleges, including Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles and Chapman University in Orange, say they have students who simply can’t afford to cover the cost of tuition, books, labs, transportation and food.
“Some LMU students were surprised to see that kind of need at LMU,” said Lorena Chavez, the university’s assistant director for community engagement. Then, they began inquiring about it for research papers and to offer donations.
“For me, it was that ‘aha’ moment,” Chavez said. Need isn’t restricted to any one campus, she said, “especially when it comes to food insecurity.”
Going Hungry
For some students who visit local campus pantries, the free food is more than a supplement. It’s a necessity.
Studies indicate a significant percentage of college students are experiencing various levels of food insecurity, ranging from going hungry to poor diets: 
  • A 2016 UC survey of nearly 9,000 students found that 42 percent experienced food insecurity; 23 percent had diets of reduced quality, variety or desirability; and 19 percent weren’t getting enough food because they couldn’t afford it.
  • A 2017 Community College report found that about 12.2 percent of students experienced food insecurity.
  • A 2016 Cal State University system study reporting preliminary data based on Cal State Long Beach respondents suggested 24 percent of students were experiencing food insecurity. A second phase of the survey of all the system’s 23 campuses is expected to be released next year.
“The narrative of the starving student is part of the problem,” said Rashida Crutchfield, a Cal State Long Beach assistant professor and lead investigator on the CSU report.
“A lot of people believe that struggle and eating a cup of noodles is just part of the college experience,” she said.
For many of the students, it’s not easy navigating the new terrain of college life. Some don’t want to burden their parents by asking for more financial help. Others know their parents, perhaps struggling themselves, can’t give more.
Today’s students don’t all fit the stereotype of an 18-year-old, single person. Many are returning to school as older students, some with families to support.
Whether there are more students today going hungry or awareness of a long-existing problem is growing is unclear.  But officials cite factors that could be contributing to an increased need, including changing campus demographics and more students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, as well as while higher costs for tuition and housing.
“Because no one has been doing this research, we don’t have comparable data to know whether it has changed over time,” Crutchfield said.
Studies and educators note that those who go hungry may also not have a place to sleep. They can find themselves crashing on a friend’s couch or sleeping in their cars.
Cal State Northridge is among Southern California’s colleges that have developed partnerships with community organizations to address food insecurity. And the statewide university system is looking to work with more partners to address housing insecurity, said Denise Bevly, director of the CSU system’s Student Wellness and Basic Needs Initiative.
Campus partners include the West L.A. Food Bank, Second Harvest Food Bank of Orange County and the Orange County Food Bank. Campus food pantries are “an idea whose time has come,” said Mark Lowry, executive director of the Orange County Food Bank.
What they offer and how they work
How the pantries operate and what they offer varies.
Some, like the Beach Pantry at Cal State Long Beach, which launched last year in what used to be a janitorial closet, are open daily. Others have fewer hours, including the new Hawk’s Nest Food Pantry at Santiago Canyon College, which recently dedicated a program open every other Thursday.
All of the food banks offer nonperishable items, like canned goods, granola bars and the perennial college staple, mac ’n’ cheese in a box.  But some also offer fresh produce.
“My daughter would like this. She loves strawberries,” said Ivon Fuerte, 24, a mom who splits her time between two community colleges and raising her two young daughters. She picked up juices, soup, tuna and some vegetables and fresh fruit at the Hawk’s Nest pantry grand opening Sept. 14.
Santiago Canyon College stores its non-perishables in a donated shipping container, but sets up the food, including fresh fruits and vegetables stacked inside baskets, on tables that are lined up under tents to resemble an open-air farmer’s market.
Some campus food pantries have paid staff and a budget, while others rely mostly or solely on donations and volunteers
Fullerton College, possibly the first in Orange County to create a pantry, relies on donations and volunteers to serve some 63 to 70 students every Tuesday, said Adela Lopez, a retired professor emeritus who helped start the program.
“For a lot of these students, it’s been generational poverty. A lot of them are eligible for help and they don’t know about Cal Fresh,” Lopez said, referring to a government program that provides monthly food benefits to those who qualify.
In the UC system, President Janet Napolitano last year approved $3.3 million in new funding over two years to expand food pantry storage and access and expand student support services, among other things. Each campus received $151,000, in addition to $75,000 allocated in 2015.
Colleges and universities said they want to remove any stigma attached to asking for help.
Most local schools contacted said they protect students’ privacy but also ask students to swipe their student identification to ensure the benefactors are indeed registered students.
Loyola Marymount is one of the few that doesn’t staff its pantry and doesn’t ask for ID. To learn how often it was used, the school installed a system to count access. Last year, the door was opened almost 2,000 times.
UCLA also doesn’t require identification. And the school doesn’t know how many students use the program, said Antonio Sandoval, director of UCLA’s Community Programs Office, which oversees the food pantry.
UCLA was one of the first in the nation to open a food pantry, in 2009, after Michigan State and Oregon State universities, Sandoval said.
Since then, UCLA has been contacted by hundreds of colleges considering starting programs,he said.
Campuses also have different rules about how much they allow students to pick up. Cal State Long Beach, for example, limits students to five items per day. UCI tells students they can fill up to a couple of bags with groceries and sanitary products. Cal State San Bernardino has no limit.
Many campuses offer students other food help, including meal plan swipe credits donated by fellow students. At Cal State San Bernardino, students can also receive gift cards to grocery stores. Cal State Fullerton, the only Cal State that has yet to open a food pantry, is working on one. In the meantime, they offer students other help, including access to phone app alerts that notify students of left-over food following school events.
For students like Hoang, of UCI, who didn’t learn about his campus pantry until this year and lost weight as a freshman, the new campus facility is a welcome addition. As he toured it Wednesday, he pointed excitedly to inviting sandwiches in the refrigerated area.
“I lived on bread and ham last year,” he said.
On another shelf, sat something he said he hadn’t tasted in ages: boxed mashed potatoes with gravy.