It’s safe to say that 2020 isn’t what many of us expected. Our new normal includes wearing masks, avoiding physical contact, and connecting with each other through screens. The consequences of this are varied and deep. Many have lost their jobs, their homes, and their social support structures. As a co-operative that was founded by students from UC Davis and has many Aggies that keep it running in one way or another, we were curious how our local college students were handling these challenges.

According to a recent UC Davis news report, “approximately 50 percent of undergraduate students and 70 percent of graduate students are planning to live in Davis and its surrounding communities, including on- and off-campus housing.” This information raised many concerns for us. Many students rely on campus resources in order to access food and housing, which made us wonder how the 50% of undergraduates who would not be returning to campus would cope. On the other hand, international students are in many cases unable to return home because of travel bans, isolating them from the social support of their families.

We caught up with the campus organizations Aggie Compass and Food Recovery Network to see what resources there still were for student’s food access and other basic needs. We also spoke to two students, Mathew Pimley and Akshita Gandra, who are still working to create a sense of community for UC Davis students despite the coronavirus lockdown.

We reached out to Aggie Compass, a campus organization that connects students with basic needs resources, first. We spoke with Nubia Goodwin to see what they have experienced since the pandemic began. “We have worked very hard to continue providing the same services during this time, even if that means delivering them in alternate methods. Our grant program and casework management were easy to transition into online services,” Goodwin said. “But our in-person services like Fruit and Veggie Up or our linen closet were more difficult. We switched to a format which allows for great social distancing and minimum time spent around one another.”

Luckily for those students who have remained around campus, or those who will return, Aggie Compass has been able to continue its Fruit and Veggie Up program. Fruit and Veggie Up distributes free, fresh produce to UC Davis students. “We also did start additional gift cards to students so that they can purchase their own food if they’ve returned home,” Goodwin said. This was done to make up for the fact that those students no longer have access to an open food pantry five days a week. The Co-op has donated prepared food and fresh produce to Fruit and Veggie Up for a long time and now because of the COVID restrictions, we have even placed a free community refrigerator (Freedge) outside of our store to increase our community’s access to healthy foods.

Another campus organization that usually makes up for the gaps in student’s access to food is the Food Recovery Network. Food Recovery Network is a non-profit run by students who find surplus food and distribute it to the local community. We met virtually with Alicia Marzolf, the Event Coordinator of the Food Recovery Network, to see how their operations have been affected by quarantine. She indicated that they were recovering less food, “mainly because the dorms are closed and campus operations are pretty much all virtual now. The dining commons that we recover from have less food because there are fewer customers. So we’ve ultimately had less food to recover and donate, making it harder to achieve our mission,” Marzolf said. “Our operations have scaled back in response to this. We used to recover twice a week from the Dining Commons and Market and now we’re doing it every other week at the most.”

While it seems that students are still able to receive help with certain basic needs, although how much help seems dependent on whether they have remained on campus, we were still curious to know how students were coping without the UC Davis community to lean on. In order to get a sense of this we spoke to two students leading on campus publications that allow students a creative outlet to express how they feel.

Akshita Gandra is the editor-in-chief of Revival, a feminism-focused campus publication. She was able to comment on some of the unique challenges being faced by female students right now. “It’s more likely for female students to face difficult situations at home or with their partners, not just because of domestic violence but because of cultural or class-based restrictions rooted in traditional gender hierarchies,” Gandra said. “I come from a South Asian background and there’s a conservative mindset that women should stay at home. I think with COVID that protectiveness has been exacerbated and that has likely led to a decrease in mental health for students.” Traditional values are something Gandra identified could hold female students back from their studies. “Cooking, cleaning, and care,” Gandra said. “Women have traditionally done so much unpaid labor. This might not be as prevalent as it once was but it is the case for many families.”

Gandra was also acutely aware of how other students might be struggling away from campus. “For a lot of non-binary, trans, or LGBTQ students returning home can be a big challenge. Especially if they aren’t accepted by their parents or their peers at home,” Gandra said. “I think college for the most part has a very supportive environment if you can surround yourself with people that are accepting. When you are isolated at home you no longer have access to that support system.”

The loss of the on-campus community is irreplaceable but students like Gandra are attempting to recreate it online. Revival provides a space for conversations that students care about and also a place to belong. “We’ve gotten some emails from incoming freshmen already asking if we’re active and whether they can join,” Gandra said. “I think because people are having to stay at home or isolated in their dorms there’s a greater interest in joining and working on something.”

A creative outlet is possibly more important for students than ever. Open Ceilings is an undergraduate-run literary magazine that provides such an outlet and is attempting to foster community in its own way. We spoke with Matthew Pimley, Board Director and Co-Founder of the magazine, about how students have been responding via the submissions they’ve received. He noted that the issue they’re currently working on, “is going to be composed of work created during the initial pandemic quarantine. So our chosen theme ‘Shoes Before Socks’ is meant to represent the fact that we’re all out here, we’re home, we’re trying to maintain normalcy through our routines,” Pimley said. “That theme is representative of the submissions we got because so many of them deal with the day-to-day things that we still hold on to despite how crazy everything has been this year. One of the pieces I thought was so COVID was about baking sourdough bread.” Despite this attempt to stay afloat through structure and routines Pimley stated that “a lot of the pieces are influenced by the ambient anxiety of this time.”

One can indeed feel this ambient anxiety when they pass others on the street or scroll through social media. We feel it float through the doors of the Co-op sometimes and what we want most to say is that we’re here for you. As a cooperative, one of our driving principles is concern for our community. And as a collective of human beings, we care deeply for each person that walks through our doors. We take seriously our responsibility to keep you safe and uplift our community during this time.

We are all having to make difficult adjustments during this time to a new normal that is scary, with high stakes, and includes an uncertain job market looming on the horizon. This situation is uniquely jarring to students who are struggling to learn new skills, both in their future careers and in life, while they try to stay afloat. However, the view that we got from the students and organizations that we spoke to is an optimistic one. It would seem that some are taking the changes to campus operations as an opportunity to grow and adapt and that there are resources still in place to help students. However, we are aware that there are more vulnerable students who we were unable to speak to that might not be coping as well. It is important now more than ever that our community come together to provide support for each other, however we are able to.

By RACHEL HELEVA—
rheleva@davisfood.coop


Featured image is of Sequoia Erasmus, a graduate student studying transportation technology and policy and landscape design, modeling a branded face covering at the Davis Amtrak station. (Gregory Urquiaga/UC Davis)