Food giveaways, housing vouchers help many Chaffey College students through pandemic – Daily Bulletin

A can of beans, a jar of peanut butter — leftovers in his cupboard from a free food box — are emotional triggers for Jared Barnes, who during the height of the coronavirus pandemic lived for months not knowing where his next meal would come from.

The hunger pangs and numbing anxiety coursed through his 6-foot 4-inch frame daily before his friend told him about Panther Care. He put aside his shame and drove to the Chaffey College program’s distribution site, picking up free groceries that alleviated his food insecurity and revived his focus on  classes.

“While I was living in my car, that was the hardest part,” the 23-year-old Barnes said, speaking from his friend’s home in Rialto where he now resides. “Yeah, the most difficult part was eating and trying to keep yourself busy.”

During the past 15 months, he drove through the Panther Care food distribution five times, he said. The bags of groceries — including beans and peanut butter — helped keep his stomach full and his mind alert. “They have helped me eat throughout the day. I received a ton of help from the Panther Care organization,” he said.

Panther Care started pre-pandemic, in August 2019, as a way to meet the physical needs of at-risk students by giving out vouchers to cover overdue electric bills or short stays in hotels. Sometimes they would hand out Chromebooks or give out cash cards to help students buy textbooks and supplies.

About 80% of Chaffey College students are on some kind of financial aid, said Melissa Pinion, spokesperson for the college. A survey conducted in fall 2020 found that 30% of the students are housing insecure or are homeless due to the pandemic, she said.

“I don’t think a lot of people realize there are a high percentage of homeless college students,” she said, adding that Chaffey College is not unique. “There isn’t a college across the state that didn’t face an increase in students facing food and housing insecurity because of the pandemic,” Pinion said.

When the pandemic hit in March 2020 and businesses shut their doors, the organization began to see more students who had lost jobs in the restaurant and service industries sleeping in their cars with little access to shelter or food. When Barnes’ father could no longer pay the bills, they lost their home, Jared said.

With the pandemic shut-down orders causing waves of unemployment and worsening systemic poverty, the twice-a-month food giveaways became Panther Care’s main task for Chaffey College students.

Albert Rodriguez, 40, manager of the program, was hired in February 2020. One of his job duties is to drive a flatbed truck to Community Action Partnership in San Bernardino, pack it with food and drive it back to the Rancho Cucamonga campus’ Panther Pantry. Once back there, a team of five would unload the truck and fill boxes for upcoming giveaway days.

That’s where Rodriguez was last week when he talked about the program, which he estimated has served more than 1,000 Chaffey College students. The college has about 25,000 students currently enrolled, Pinion said.

“The pantry is no longer just about the food. It is about the person and the family,” Rodriguez said. “It’s being able to talk to the students. It’s meeting their parents. It’s all a part of helping them be a successful student.”

When students lost their jobs it unleashed a double-whammy effect. Often, their income supported extended families at home, Rodriguez said. “A lot of our students felt more pressure because their parents were out of a job,” he said.

At the drive-thru giveaways, older students would bring their own children because K-12 campuses and daycare centers were closed, although recently many have begun reopening. Rodriguez noticed them in the back seats doing virtual school work, heads buried in laptops.

“I felt the pantry was a place where we could check in on them, ask them how they are doing with classes. How are their kids doing with their classes. We also started handing out coloring books and juice boxes for the little ones,” he said.

Erasing the stigma of asking for a handout is a goal he has pursued at each giveaway, Rodriguez said. He asks each recipient for their student ID number only. Yet, some students and their family members felt the sting of asking for help.

Panther Care pantry staffer Hector Martinez stacks boxes food as workers prepare to redistribute the goods to students at Chaffey College campus in Rancho Cucamonga on Tuesday, June 8, 2021. In response to homelessness and food insecurity among Chaffey College students, the college has launched Panther Care to give away food and hotel vouchers to students in need. (Photo by Watchara Phomicinda, The Press-Enterprise/SCNG)

“At the onset of the pandemic, I remember one kid on the passenger side covering his head with his hoodie so we couldn’t see him — he was like 11 or 12. I think he was embarrassed,” Rodriguez said.

Rodriguez talked to the regulars and often handed out email addresses and phone numbers for the financial aid office and other services. The Panther Pantry referred some (Transitional Age Youth) students to the Ontario TAY One Stop Center, 316 East E St. for counseling and job placement services.

Food giveaways, housing vouchers help many Chaffey College students through pandemic – Daily Bulletin
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