A new task force has formed at Washington State University to identify ways it can better meet the basic needs of its students systemwide.

Ellen Taylor, associate vice president for student engagement in the Division of Student Affairs, charged the Basic Needs Task Force with developing knowledge around the challenges and opportunities of food and housing insecurity. Its members will inventory existing resources, identify barriers to establishing effective partnerships, and create recommendations to fight food and housing insecurity at the system level on each campus.

Taylor said the task force should consider how to leverage systemwide expertise, resources, and successes, as it develops a vision for where WSU wants to be in one, three and five years. She requested to see collaborative proposals addressing the challenges by March.

“I would like the proposals to be both ambitious and realistic,” Taylor said. “They need to think about scale and scope in creating multilayer initiatives—things we can do with very little, and things we can do if we had additional resources.”

Seeking real solutions

The task force consists of faculty, staff, and students from all WSU campuses, as well as representatives from Spokane Community College in Pullman, the Community Action Center, and Whitman County Public Health Department.

Task force Co-Chair Kim Holapa, associate vice president for external engagement & strategic initiatives in the Division of Student Affairs, said the next step for the group is to discuss dividing into subcommittees, each addressing diffent aspects of insecurity such as food, housing and healthcare.

While the March deadline for proposals is admittedly aggressive, Holapa said she and co-chair Ryan Lazo, community partnerships coordinator in WSU’s Center for Civic Engagement, are excited about what this group of experienced and passionate individuals can accomplish.

“Our goal is not to create just another resource guide,” Holapa said. “We need to develop some real solutions to these challenges.”

Community partnerships key

The Center for Civic Engagement builds partnerships and consults with community organizations to help make resources in the communities known and accessible to WSU students. Lazo said service providers in Whitman County report a significant number of students are relying on everything from food banks to energy and rent assistance.

A national study of nearly 86,000 college students conducted this year by The Hope Center found that 45 % of respondents were food insecure in the prior 30 days, 56 % were housing insecure in the previous year, and 17 % were homeless in the previous year.

According to preliminary numbers provided by the Community Action Center, the 2018 Whitman County Needs Assessment reveals 15 % of the random sampling of county residents, and 30 % of those surveyed at various public service locales, felt concerned about having enough food for the household.

“Food insecurity has remained around 18 to 20 % for over six years throughout the county and my guess is that is similar to what is happening on campus,” said Jeff Guyett, executive director of the Community Action Center and Basic Needs Task Force member.

When considering health issues, the Whitman County Needs Assessment found affordable medical, dental, and mental health services top the list of needs.

Research conducted by a WSU food insecurity task force in 2017 found that up to one-quarter of WSU Pullman students struggled with food insecurity during the previous year. While each community where WSU students reside is different, the basic needs of students remains mostly consistent.

“While we know many students are utilizing the resources out there, we also know some are unaware of what is available or don’t know how to access them,” Lazo said. “This task force has the opportunity to help prevent students from slipping through the cracks.”

A call for coordination

Because food and housing insecurity are not new issues at WSU, Holapa said caring individuals from across the system have been creating and implementing programs to address the problems for years.

“From these experiences, we want to know what has been tried that hasn’t worked, what good ideas can we borrow from other institutions, what, if any, political implications do we need to consider, and are there partnerships that we haven’t yet explored,” she said.

Taylor emphasized the importance of coordination when devising new strategies. She said with WSU being so large and geographically dispersed, it is easy for people in different locations not to be aware of others working on the same issues.

“By working together, we will be in better position to leverage each other’s energy,” Taylor said. “We know that if we can coordinate better, it will elevate the impact.”

Task force members devoted time during their first meeting to share some current efforts underway to help food insecure students. Chris Meiers, vice chancellor of student Affairs at WSU Tri-Cities, said his campus’ food pantry, called Cougar Cupboard, had a humble beginning. It started five years ago with a $500 grant from the Rotary Club, then grew to establish additional partnerships with Second Harvest and potato producer Lamb Weston.

“We had no idea where things would go when we first opened it,” Meiers said. “The key was figuring out what resources are available in the community and engaging them, while also creating a culture of giving on the campus.”

Jane Summers, director of student affairs at WSU Spokane, spoke about a plan by student government leaders to build a greenhouse so food insecure students there can have access to fresh produce.  At WSU Vancouver, student leaders helped produce a brief video describing how students can access the Cougar Food Pantry.

The Pullman campus boasts three different food pantries managed by the Women’s Center, Academic Success and Career Center, and Student Support Services respectively. It also offers a program called Cougs Feeding Cougs, a resource that allows Pullman students to request assistance online.

As part of its ongoing effort to educate faculty, staff and students about the impact of poverty, The Center for Civic Engagement devoted its Public Square event on Nov. 20 to the topic. Titled “A Day in the Life of Poverty”, attendees participated in poverty simulation exercises and a facilitated discussion.