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Chemeketa Foundation Grocery Grant supports student needs after food pantry closure

Within the first hour of accepting submissions, the Grocery Grant received 201 applications – enough to eat up the grant’s entire $10,000 budget. 

After that hour, Grecia Garcia Perez, the student services coordinator, had to shut down the application, because she didn’t want more students applying than could potentially receive funds. 

The grocery grant, which made a limited amount of $50 grocery gift cards available to students, was designed to meet the urgent student need for food assistance. Many students face food insecurity, said Garcia Perez who also oversees Chemeketa’s food pantry. That means when the food pantry was shut down as a social distancing measure on March 20, many students were left without support for groceries. 

Even before the pandemic, food insecurity impacted an outsized portion of college students. Some studies say 1 in 3 college students struggle with food insecurity. Other estimates say it’s closer to half of all college students.

The pandemic makes that need even more acute. 

“Right now, the need has exponentially increased,” said Garcia Perez, who spearheaded the grocery grant initiative. The idea for the grant was inspired by a conversation Garcia Perez had with a student services representative from Portland Community College, which has created a similar gift card grant. 

The college’s food pantry served 3,966 adults in the previous academic year, the majority of whom were Chemeketa students, Garcia Perez said. But due to the concerns about the spread of the illness, the college decided to close the pantry and Garcia Perez said it’s likely the pantry will remain closed for the duration of social distancing measures. 

The grocery grant is a way to continue supporting student needs while the pantry is closed, although the 187 gift cards Garcia Perez issued aren’t nearly enough to cover ongoing student needs, she said. Student services has linked community food assistance resources to the food pantry’s webpage and she encourages students to utilize those as well. Her office can field questions, and students can also call the 211 information line with questions about how to access those services.

Phillip Hudspeth, director of the Chemeketa Foundation, which provided the funds for the grocery grant, said that the immense student need right now is “overwhelming.” Students have myriad reasons for requesting the grocery grant, but Hudspeth said one theme encompassed many of the applications. 

“From going through it, it looks like most of the students had lost a job or had a family member lose a job because of coronavirus,” Hudspeth said. This is on par with state trends – in the first month of state-mandated social distancing, 1 in 7 Oregonians lost their jobs, according to Oregon Employment Department data. 

While the grocery grant is currently closed to new applications, Garcia Perez and the Chemeketa Foundation hope to continue fundraising so it can support more grocery gift cards in the future. 

Hudspeth said his non-profit usually provides $3,000 in funding every term to the food pantry. By using those funds for the grocery grant, and also redirecting sponsorships originally allocated for two events cancelled in the wake of the pandemic – Chemeketa’s 50th anniversary gala and the foundation’s donor recognition event – the foundation was able to provide the $10,000 used for the gift cards. 

Moving forward, Hudspeth said, the foundation is writing grants and sending out letters to 500 past donors to the foundation requesting donations to continue supporting the Student Relief Fund, which covers both student food assistance and other emergency assistance for students in need. 

The relief fund existed before the pandemic as a means to support students in precarious financial situations that might threaten their ability to continue their education.

“The student relief fund is so critical,” Hudspeth said. “These one time grants have a great retention rate for helping students stay in college.” 

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