OSU’s Basic Needs Center connects students with food and one another

April 9, 2023

From the Spring 2023 issue of the Oregon Stater magazine

By Julie Cooper, ’18

Shared meals with roommates. Group study sessions over coffee, tea and cookies. Students connect, exchange cultures, learn and celebrate over food. More than just a necessity to keep their minds sharp, food is a community builder.

But Oregon State research shows that one in four students on the Corvallis campus is considered “food insecure,” and that the rate is higher than one in three for Black, Latinx, Indigenous and Pacific Islander students. In other words, these students face difficulty accessing enough food to sustain an active lifestyle.

Oregon legislation passed in 2021 requires all public colleges and universities to appoint a “basic needs navigator” to streamline students’ access to healthy foods and financial assistance. (Oregon State has had one since 2018.) Still, stigma can stand in the way of students accessing the available resources. That’s why the Oregon State Basic Needs Center (BNC) is leading the charge to adopt a more community-based approach to student support, ensuring that students can rely on a constellation of resources on and off campus, as well as on one another.

Sitting on the eastern edge of the Corvallis campus, the BNC is housed in Champinefu Lodge and is known by many for its 560-square-foot campus food pantry. The center serves an average of 400 to 600 students each week, providing resources — from groceries, textbooks and laptops to shower and laundry facilities — and helping students develop strategies for finding food and paying rent.

In recent years, it’s also a place where students gather to study, decorate cookies, carve pumpkins, play board games and learn to prepare and preserve foods.

“We’re shifting away from a social services model to be more of a community center,” says Food Security Programs Manager Emily Faltesek. “A lot of what we’re doing is peer-to-peer.”

After all, who knows the challenges and needs students face better than their counterparts?

The BNC’s ultimate strength is its 24 undergraduate peer navigators who staff the center with guidance from a handful of professional staff.

They juggle a broad scope of duties, from teaching cooking classes to hosting social events to tending a community garden outside the center. Later this year, their fresh produce and aromatics will be plucked and placed into healthy produce bags for students. They also support students with strategy conversations about everyday challenges.

“Needs aren’t always financial,” says bioengineering student and peer navigator Timothy Nguyen. “Sometimes students need people to just be there for them and someone to hang out with.”

That’s why many of the BNC’s opportunities help students get fed as a background to another activity: a concert or baking competition, for example. Among the most popular offerings are regular cooking classes where students learn to prepare affordable recipes or work with a single versatile ingredient — such as eggs or lentils — and enjoy a meal with peers.

This summer, the center will partner with OSU Extension’s Master Gardener program to teach students the fundamentals of growing their own food.

These long-term strategies supplement the short-term solutions traditionally associated with the center, such as a weekly food pantry, SNAP (formerly known as food stamps) eligibility and application advising, and @EatFreeOSUa Twitter account that promotes events where free food is available. Students can also access Mealbux and Full Plate funds to spend at campus eateries. Full Plate is funded by students who donate unused dining dollars to support classmates.

The array of programs also ensures that students left out of state and federal assistance programs — including graduate students, international students and undocumented students — can rely on campus resources instead.

Defying the narrative that hunger is a normal rite of passage for college students, the Basic Needs Center empowers a variety of partners to consider how they can help students thrive, create a more equitable college experience and even help reduce food waste.

Faltesek says the shift away from defining students by something they lack is important. Instead, the center focuses on appreciating the assets students bring: Ingenuity. Resiliency. Unique solutions. Compassion for one other.

“It doesn’t seem big,” says peer navigator Meron Solomon, “but it matters that we slow down to help and care for our community.

No matter where you live, you can support OSU’s ongoing efforts to fight student hunger by giving a one-time or monthly gift to the Corvallis campus Basic Needs Center or to the OSU-Cascades Student Emergency Fund at BeaversFightHunger.org.