Students lead the way for CESJ, providing through the pandemic

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Desiree Erdmann

Megan Mcgill (left), and Astrid Bladh grab and organize the boxes of pre-packaged fresh produce and non-perishables that are placed in the back of students cars at the food distribution event in the West Campus Lot 5-1 on Wednesday Feb. 10, 2021 in Santa Barbara, Calif. Mcgill has been volunteering with the food distribution services for a couple weeks and said that “it’s good to know that we are helping people.”

Tom Chorney, Staff Writer

Student leadership has played a key role for the Center for Equity and Social Justice’s connection with the community and its multifaceted response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“This semester, a lot of these workshops are actually student-led,” said CESJ Student Program Advisor Alondra Lazaro Gonzalez. “They create these ideas and make them a reality.”

When the center learned it would not be able to host events in-person, student leaders and volunteers took the responsibility of engaging with fellow students in new ways, continuing to provide the safe space online that it had on campus.

Some of the ways include “virtual hangouts,” Netflix watch parties and weekly yoga sessions.

Students can also attend workshops and stream monthly themed documentaries on their own time.

In the spring semester, the CESJ began hosting a free food drive every week on campus to assist those who may be struggling to pay for food. This semester it has expanded to an extra day, so those in need can pick up food on Tuesdays and Wednesdays at 2:30 p.m in the west campus parking lot.

“Everyone’s been dealt a different hand of cards with the pandemic, and many people are struggling,” said Nikhil Patel, a student worker with the CESJ. “But we’ve got so many resources to help people and provide for them, and I’ve learned that just giving back to the community is important.”

Working staff has been doubled and box orders have increased from 125 to 150 this semester, though often supplies run out at the end of distribution day. The center has also collaborated with The Well, which provides hygiene kits with each distribution box.

From left Aranzazu Magallanes, Jirehandre Bitangila, and Megan Mcgill carry boxes of pre-packaged fresh produce and non-perishables to a students car at the food distribution event in the West Campus Lot 5-1 on Wednesday Feb. 10, 2021 in Santa Barbara, Calif. The boxes have fresh produce such as celery, apples and milk along with items like bread and pasta as well.
From left Aranzazu Magallanes, Jirehandre Bitangila, and Megan Mcgill carry boxes of pre-packaged fresh produce and non-perishables to a students car at the food distribution event in the West Campus Lot 5-1 on Wednesday Feb. 10, 2021 in Santa Barbara, Calif. The boxes have fresh produce such as celery, apples and milk along with items like bread and pasta as well.
(Desiree Erdmann)

In the near future, CESJ leaders plan to create TikTok videos with recipes that can be made from the food provided at the distribution.

The center frequently advocates for CalFresh, a federally-funded food assistance program. 

CalFresh has become a fixture of CESJ outreach to make sure everyone who qualifies for it can receive it.

Members of CESJ guide applicants through the process, and Lazaro Gonzalez said there is a higher rate of successful applications for those who seek that help. 

“There are certain questions that, if they’re not answered correctly, it could totally deny them,” she said.

Student CESJ leaders play a large role in CalFresh guidance and the food distribution, especially during the pandemic where students can relate to other students.

In talking with the student workers at The Food Pantry, common threads emerge: teamwork, communication, respect, and community.

Food Pantry assistant lead Randy Smith credits “a positive environment” that draws people in.

“I really think that inspires everybody to contribute as much as they can,” Smith said.

Aranzazú Magallanes, a student worker in her third year with the center, said this work means a lot to her.

“It’s the best feeling ever,” she said.