The Food Security Project at Fresno State received an honorable mention in the 2018 competition for the Excellence in Innovation Award by Phi Kappa Phi, the nation’s oldest collegiate honor society.

The initiative, which includes the Student Cupboard, Catered Cupboard and other resources, was one of six semifinalists for the biennial $100,000 award. The honor recognizes an institution for finding powerful answers to important local, regional, national or global challenges.

“To hear that we were in the final six is really an honor,” said program coordinator Jessica Medina. “I’m thankful we have a supportive campus and a community that are able to provide this. It’s all about student success, that means helping them with basic needs.”

The winner, announced May 17, was Western Michigan University for its Seita Scholars Program to increase successful outcomes of young adults who aged out of the foster care system. Other finalists included The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art and University of North Alabama. Honorable mentions also went to Marquette University and Elon University.

“The semifinalist institutions presented our jury with six fine examples of innovative projects they have successfully implemented on campus, in their community or globally,” said Dr. Mary Todd, the society’s executive director. “Each distinct in its own right, all showcased creative approaches to the problem solving so essential in these times.”

The Food Security Program at Fresno State started in August 2014 after a study conducted by public health faculty member Alida Espinoza showed 31 percent of the students she surveyed had food insecurities. Research has shown that students who are hungry or at risk of being hungry experience health problems and academic challenges.

Dr. Joseph I. Castro and his wife, Mary Castro, have spearheaded efforts to meet the basic needs of the University’s students since Castro became president in 2013. Food security is an issue close to their hearts.

Under the initiative, the Student Cupboard food and hygiene pantry opened in November 2014. The pantry, which is 100 percent donor funded, allows students to shop once a day for fresh produce and other food items for free. Personal hygiene products are available once a month.

Between spring 2015 and fall 2017, the Student Cupboard had 17,725 unique visitors with a total of 117,000 visits. It distributed 675,000 pounds of food from November 2014 to March 2018. Donors have generously given $364,155. In the first year alone, the pantry more than doubled in size from 800 square feet to 2,200 square feet and it continues to grow, Medina said.

The food initiative offers more than just a bag of food. Students can also receive gift certificates to eat at dining halls, food education and recipes. CalFresh, a nutrition assistance program that helps low-income individuals and families with monthly food benefits, is available for eligible students to buy healthy food at grocery stores. Then there’s Catered Cupboard, which uses the Fresno State mobile app to let students know when and where extra food is available at the end of catered events on campus.

Coming soon will be a pilot program to teach students basic life skills like meal prep, how to plan a trip to the grocery store and how to make their money go farther.

The Food Security Program has become one of the leaders in the California State University system when it comes to food pantries, Medina said. Other schools are studying the program and reaching out to see how those institutions can make it work on their campuses.

Medina helped Fresno City College set up its Ram Pantry, which started as a simple food distribution. Sacramento State modeled its Epicure Extras program after the Catered Cupboard.

University Enterprises, Inc., the nonprofit, auxiliary organization for Sac State, learned about Catered Cupboard at a meeting of commercial auxiliary services executive directors and decided to start its own program, said Angela Rader, the organization’s director of marketing services.

“With President (Robert S.) Nelsen’s vision and support, our campus’ Associated Students, Inc. food pantry initiative was launched to address students’ food insecurity,” Rader said. “To further help this effort, Epicure Extras was implemented as a successful complement to address this need.”

Fresno State’s Student Cupboard is located in the Grosse Industrial Technology Building (Room 144). Summer hours are 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Mondays and Wednesdays, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays. Students must show a valid Fresno State ID to use the Student Cupboard.