Addressing Food Insecurity on an Urban Campus

Lupe Conchas, Vashi Worley, and Larry D. Johnson, Jr.
Innovation Showcase

Phoenix College (PC), one of ten colleges in the Maricopa County Community College District (MCCCD), was established in 1920. Located in the heart of Phoenix, Arizona, PC is one of the oldest community colleges in the United States, serves more than 17,000 students annually, and is designated by the Department of Education as a Hispanic-Serving Institution (HSI). The college opened its doors during a period of racial unrest and was one of the only institutions to support a diverse student body at that time. Today, PC remains a staple in the community as a social justice-conscious college, where service learning and supporting the community are always priorities and where faculty and staff actualize the institution’s vision to prepare students for transfer to four-year institutions and careers. After 100 years of service, PC continues to assess and address the cognitive and noncognitive barriers that impact student success.

Meeting the Basic Needs of Students

In fall 2016, students in professor Eric Berge’s English 102 class researched food insecurity across the country and juxtaposed their findings with PC students’ experiences. Also in 2016, the Wisconsin HOPE Lab at University of Wisconsin - Madison surveyed MCCCD students about their basic needs. The data was startling. According to the report, 57 percent of MCCCD students could not afford balanced meals and 44 percent had, at some point, cut the size of or skipped meals because they did not have enough money for food. Following the students’ review of the survey data, English professors Eric Berge and Dr. Bob Gibney collaborated with PC’s Student Life and Leadership Office to sponsor a student club with the sole mission of feeding hungry students. The resulting PC Pantry Club remains in existence today.

Initially, Pantry Club students solicited donations of food items such as Cup O’Noodles, granola bars, and water, and assembled brown bag lunches for students in need. In 2016, Phoenix College developed a partnership with St. Mary's Food Bank Alliance, one of the largest food banks in the U.S., which serves nine of Arizona’s fifteen counties. Once a month, PC students, staff, and faculty, in collaboration with St. Mary’s Food Bank Mobile Pantry, distributed thousands of pounds of food on campus to those in need. At that time, the PC Food Pantry served 200 students; today, more than 400 students use the pantry. Due to increased need, the Student Life and Leadership team identified space on campus to store and distribute food items in a manner similar to a typical grocery store experience, allowing students to choose healthy food items to get them through the day or the weekend. The college also increased the availability of St. Mary’s Food Bank Mobile Pantry distributions to twice a month. More recently, student leaders implemented strategies to engage the entire college in efforts to understand student food insecurities. They discovered that students are not the only ones impacted; some employees are also experiencing food insecurity. This realization catalyzed the creation of the 2018 Defeat Hunger Games Food Drive. To ensure that the event was a success, cross-campus teams were created to collect food for the pantry. In less than four weeks, the campus community collected more than 2,000 food items and toiletries. In the 2019 games, over 4,000 items were collected.

Student Testimonials

David Aguirre is the son of Mexican-born parents and a first-generation American. His parents earned a middle school education in their home country. Aguirre aspires to transfer to a university to complete a bachelor’s degree in engineering. Since he has been unemployed, however, he has found focusing on school and homework to be more difficult due to hunger and food insecurity. “I really must praise this program, because it has gotten me out of some hard moments where I did not have enough money for the cafeteria lunch,” said Aguirre. “The Phoenix College Food Pantry is a real lifesaver. I recommend any student to go if they ever find themselves falling on hard times; they will take care of you.” 

Michelle Cuneen is a full-time student in her second year of college. Presently, she lives with her fiancé and her five-year-old daughter. She works on campus part-time and often finds it challenging to pay bills. Cuneen is passionate about teaching younger children and wants to be kindergarten teacher one day. When asked about her experience with the PC pantry, Cuneen said,

It is very comforting to know that this resource is available to me. I feel that this service is important because food security is a basic human right. My success is dependent upon having food for myself and my family. Learning can only happen when a student's basic needs are met. Unfortunately, many college students have to sacrifice basic needs in order to attend school. Programs like the food pantry equalize those sacrifices and create a more positive environment on campus.

A Larger Conversation About Students’ Basic Needs Is Warranted

Access to basic necessities such as food, clothing, and shelter are paramount to ensuring equality for all citizens. Today’s students arrive on college campuses with a myriad of barriers that can impede their ability to be successful. Phoenix College understands that equity in education extends beyond a student’s ability to meet placement metrics or other cognitive indicators of college readiness. The student quotes and data provided above are testaments to the need for a focus on the whole student, including basic needs. While critical attention is placed on increasing retention and persistence rates, there is a larger conversation to be had. Noncognitive barriers that cannot be assessed by a placement instrument can yield invaluable data for colleges. Therefore, institutions must continuously engage students by listening closely and discerning how to help them to reach their educational and life goals. In so doing, colleges will actualize their missions, values, and guiding principles.


Wisconsin HOPE Lab. (2017). Maricopa County Community College District: District report from Fall 2016 Survey of Student Basic Needs. Retrieved from

Lupe Conchas is Southwest Regional Organizer, Bread for the World, and former Coordinator, Service Learning, at Phoenix College. Vashi Worley is a Student Services Specialist Senior and Dr. Larry D. Johnson, Jr. is President of Phoenix College in Phoenix, Arizona.

Opinions expressed in Innovation Showcase are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of the League for Innovation in the Community College.