Survival on campus UC Santa Cruz strike shines a spotlight on housing and hunger issues

Westside pop-up pantry | Photo by Tim Galarneau


By Charlotte West

National research has documented the widespread prevalence of hunger and housing insecurity on college campuses. In California, students often struggle to pay rent and buy food where they work and study. This issue is at the heart of the ongoing graduate student strike at UC Santa Cruz, where graduate teaching assistants are now in their fourth week of a wildcat strike. Students have continued to picket the base of campus after UCSC officials terminated 54 graduate students and blocked another 30 from spring appointments last Friday.

This week, teaching assistants at UC Santa Barbara have also gone on a teaching strike and UC Davis graduate students are planning on withholding winter quarter grades in solidarity. A UC-wide day of action, including a walkout and strike on different campuses, is planned for today (March 5). The union governing the teaching assistants, which did not initially sanction the strike, has filed an unfair labor practice grievance against the UC system after the graduate students were fired last week and are considering a union-backed strike. Questions have also come up about how UC Santa Cruz will address an instructor shortage in spring quarter as several departments have pledged not to fill the vacancies left open by TAs who were fired.

In the last few years, there has been a statewide push within higher education to provide more resources to address food and housing insecurity, together known as basic needs. Last year, UC Santa Cruz received $1.5 million from the state for basic needs initiatives, which include making free food available on campus and emergency housing assistance programs. Statewide, the UC system allocated $18.5 million for basic needs initiatives.

According to student survey data, 48 percent of undergraduates and 31 percent of graduate students at UCSC experience food insecurity, which refers to both a lack of food and access to nutritious food. Across the UC system, 44 percent of undergraduates and 26 percent of graduate students are food-insecure. Tim Galarneau, co-chair of the Basic Needs Committee at UCSC, said the numbers are likely higher in Santa Cruz because of the high rents.

Five percent of UC students systemwide are homeless. These are some of the conditions that drove the graduate students demanding a $1,412 monthly cost-of-living adjustment to strike.

Voices talked to Galarneau, who is also a research and education specialist at the Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems,, about the work he does addressing basic needs insecurity at UC Santa Cruz and how that intersects with the ongoing strike. Galarneau also serves as co-chair of the UC Basic Needs Initiative and is active with the UC Regents Special Committee on Basic Needs chaired by UC student regent, Hayley Weddle.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Can you talk about the work you’ve done around addressing basic needs insecurity, both at UC Santa Cruz and across the UC system?

For the last five years, my UC co-chair Ruben Canedo (at Berkeley) and I have really helped to link research around food and housing and cost of attendance to intervention and policy. In that experience we’ve realized there are so many more stakeholders and entities we need to engage in really coming to terms with these issues.

We just hosted the first (statewide) basic needs gathering that brought together all 113 community colleges, 23 CSUs and the 10 UCs. We have developed the relationships where we can share best practices, have aligned data to assess impact, and then share the interventions of those practices. So if you can imagine that you are a student at Cabrillo College, and you’re going to UCSC that you might have a sense of the same scope of support available for you from one institution to the next. So we’re trying to build out best practices and support one another across (different institutions) so that California public higher education is a forward moving engine and model for the nation while dealing with the exorbitant housing and living costs.

What are some of the basic needs initiatives that you have on campus?

We have multiple, weekly distribution and access points for students, including on the weekend. And on top of that, we have the cheapest organic farmers market in the state on campus where our students pick up produce in the farmers market downtown in and reduce the costs by 75 percent. And we accept EBT/WIC so students that have CalFresh (food stamps) can use that there. And that’s in addition to the distribution points that are free sources of food that students can access. We offer 20 different cooking and food provisioning preparation workshops a quarter out of our Cowell Coffee Shop, which is open 65 hours a week for students. What’s exciting is we’ll be rolling out a food truck trailer on the west side of campus in spring quarter.

Slug Support offers crisis intervention support that is cross issue, whether it’s a medical crisis and there’s a copay, or a student can’t pay their rent. Slug Support is a wraparound service and a key entry point for students that might come to the food pantry. It’s an opportunity for them to sit down with someone to help them think through their next steps. Slug Support has retail gift cards for Safeway and can add meal vouchers right onto student ID cards so students don’t have to have a meal plan and they can swipe it and go right into the dining hall. There are different ways that a wrap-around case management approach allows for multiple levels of problem solving.

We also have emergency housing protocols with beds held (in the residence halls). And there are other pilots we’re experimenting with related to short-term and mid-term housing options.

How often do students use services like the food pantry?

We collect data by having students swipe in with their ID cards. Students are able to swipe in and get what they need. There isn’t a limit on that per se. What we’re finding at both UCSC and systemwide, students on average are using the pantries 2.7 times a quarter. So there’s a stigma and a false narrative that when you begin to offer these types of services that students are just going to take advantage of them. They’re gonna fill up their pack all the time like they do in the dining hall. These are unquestioned assumptions. The reality is students are very judicious and are trying to be mindful with what they are accessing.

There’s also a need for discretion and respecting different stakeholders’ interests in accessing needs. For graduate students, the Graduate Student Assembly noted they’d love to have some distinct access points for their students so as TAs they’re not in line with students who are in their classes.

What is your take on the graduate student strike?

I see what is happening at the base of the campus as the ground tremors of the earthquake to come regarding overall affordability in California. My first full-time appointment at the university, I started at $33,000 here in Santa Cruz. I didn’t have (the financial) literacy graduating (from college) to know what I was setting myself up. So there is something really timely and exciting about the increased level of awareness of the challenges to the cost of living. With the demonstrations and COLA organizer efforts sharing their requests and experiences we have to understand the larger scope and scale of the issues at hand and how communities want to tackle this together. Again, this isn’t just a UCSC, or a UC thing, this is a nested set of relationships at many scales. From the leadership in the institution and  local communities, from the city and county level to the state and beyond. Considering the larger forces at hand the institution has an opportunity to advance a vision of success and accessibility that moves basic needs and student success forward. However, it can’t be accomplished without dialogue, trust building, and shared visioning.

Even getting approval for the building of new student housing, which would offer 3,000 new beds, has been a challenge.

The city’s really clear: We don’t want you building anything offsite. And then there’s a set of tensions around where projects are built even on campus and that doesn’t even bring in the affordability issue. (We need to) create this bed space due to population pressures and increasing enrollment. We have a duty to do that. It’s not just here, there’s a systemwide housing initiative that’s reporting on bed space. Some campuses are really scaling up, that’s reducing the pressure on other campuses. Santa Cruz is building out. But I’m curious about the local politics, about often the community is pointing to students, that they’re willing to pay more and then people that are making minimum wage aren’t able to have a livelihood. I think it’s dangerous when we start pointing out populations like almost an oppression Olympics. Like, whose suffering more? I think this is a time for us to come together and recognize that the floor is too high for accessibility and market forces aren’t making it any easier. So what are the mechanisms both within the campus structure and city and county that are looking at this creatively? This is something that’s gonna set a tone for many generations to come.

Has the administration involved you as the campus champion of basic needs in some of these higher level conversations that are happening?

Not at all. I have not been reached out to formally offer any input. We feel somewhat bound. Recognizing our roles, (Ruben and I) are boundary-crossing interlopers that build bridges but don’t have a formal designated administrative leadership role. And to the extent the administration wants to engage us, we would love to. We’re talking with our leads in data systemwide about new housing insecurity and homelessness questions on graduate and undergraduate measures. We’re working behind the scenes to create the data to continue to build the bridges to make better decisions. But with these short term campus-level actions and mobilizations to outright standoffs that are happening, they don’t want to bring us in. Which is unfortunate because we come in with a lot of compassion and love.

I imagine the administration has really wanted to own their decision and their communication around COLA issues, and they’re hopefully learning a lot from it. There’s a very clear binary going on here … If we were in deep relationships and learning, and respecting and growing together, versus in silos, making decisions, sending communications, people receiving ultimatums, you wouldn’t have this escalated dynamic. It wouldn’t be manifesting the way it is. So I’m curious how we move beyond this and learn from it. How do we leverage more engagement, creativity, and resourcing different forms of expertise that are here?

How does the strike intersect with the work that you are doing around basic needs insecurity?

I think there will continue to be organizing based on those impacted and the alignment with faculty around the course of administrative accountability related to COLA. And that’s in relationship to, but distinct from, basic needs. Later this month, I will be joining seven graduate students from the Graduate Student Associations across the UC to DC to do a congressional briefing on basic needs in higher education, as we continue to advocate for more investment in higher education federally.

Tomorrow, on the ground level at UCSC, I’ll be at a meeting with our basic needs director to brainstorm about appropriate resource communication messaging around basic needs. We want to be mindful that it doesn’t seem disingenuous with the administrative issues happening. But both undergrads and graduate students are stressed and unclear about things like crossing the picket line.  Those of us involved with basic needs services talked to the COLA organizers, wanting to be clear if it is crossing a line for distribution to happen from Second Harvest Food Bank. They sent a communication that they would love to see those (food distribution points) to stay open, and student workers who are doing the distribution are not crossing the line. There’s solidarity in that. And so having a movement that can be flexible, and say, ‘We’re not trying to create (a bigger) crisis, but we’re here to have our voices heard, and responded to.’ So I think that’s a unique insight in a strategy for movements of resistance and action that when they think about the impact, it elevates the mindfulness of those taking action. There can be a consciousness and a caring in this work.

Ruben Canedo and I, with our UC village of grad and undergrad students, staff, and faculty, are recognizing that because of issues of affordability that can’t be solved tomorrow, basic needs interventions require short, medium, and longer term efforts. We need to shore up our crisis and emergency support while moving upstream in our preventative messaging and support. We need to be proactive in our messaging to students considering undergraduate and graduate programs about the real cost of attendance as well as how they can access resources from the UC,  state, and federal programs that may support them based upon their status: undocumented, international, resident, non-resident. It’s important for all students, and their families, to have the best information to make decisions about their education and this investment.

Are students who have been blocked from their appointments still eligible for basic needs support services?

They are no longer employees, but they are still students. I think that’s an important distinction. They were dismissed from those appointments. Although, for many of them, that means they can no longer be here. The Basic Needs Village wants to be proactive as a partner to support them in these times, as they have to make decisions. And I guess that goes back to the paradox that you have this institutional state level investment support (for basic needs), and you have other elements of the state institution making decisions that create (negative) consequences for student action and resistance. We hold that dynamic and stay focused on care, connection, and supporting students where they are at.

Editor’s note: Charlotte West is a freshman admissions reader at UC Santa Cruz. It is a temporary and seasonal position.

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Charlotte West

About Charlotte West

Charlotte West is a freelance journalist who covers education, criminal justice, housing, and politics. She is a member of the Education Writers Association and was a 2019 Kiplinger Fellow.