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MSW Candidates Help Fellow USC Students with Debut of Trojan Food Pantry

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food pantry
A student examines the offerings at the USC Trojan Food Pantry. Photo by John Ghadar.

The Trojan Food Pantry is increasing access for USC students to essential food and hygiene products, as well as connecting eligible students to public benefit programs.

When John Ghadar, a first-year MSW student at the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work, began working at the Trojan Food Pantry in late August as part of his field placement, he could not have anticipated the impact of this work.

“The one-on-one time I get to spend with every student is an opportunity to help break the stigma associated with receiving aid and a chance to make someone’s day-to-day life a little easier,” he said.

The mission of the Trojan Food Pantry is to increase access to fresh foods for USC students experiencing low food security and to assist students in applying to federal and state benefits programs. We spoke with Ghadar as well as Brenda Wiewel, one of the coordinators of the Trojan Food Pantry and the director of USC’s Initiative to Eliminate Homelessness, about the origins of the food pantry and the critical role of social work in meeting the needs of USC students.

How the Trojan Food Pantry got its start

Supported by donors Professor Leo Braudy and his wife Dorothy Braudy of the USC Dana and David Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, both the undergraduate and the graduate student government organizations helped to launch the Emergency Food and Toiletry Pantry in February 2018. The pantry was created to serve students experiencing a short-term crisis or shortage of food or toiletries.

Soon after, the provost-supported USC Initiative to Eliminate Homelessness conducted a basic needs survey of the student body. The results of this survey illuminated the fact that a number of current USC students are affected by homelessness and food insecurity — in fact, the data revealed that one in every four USC students experiences low or very low food security.

In an effort to provide a more robust service to students in need, the university’s student government organizations presented new food pantry models to USC staff members for consideration and committed to full support of the effort. Within weeks, a staff and student work group had established a partnership with St. Francis Center, an organization that operates its own food pantry and had worked with USC in the past on its Swipe Out Hunger initiative to end hunger among LA’s homeless population.

From this partnership, and thanks to a donation of dedicated space on campus from USC Auxiliary Services, the Trojan Food Pantry was born. Since its introduction, hundreds of students have used the food pantry, volunteered to serve or received critical referrals to external resources for food benefits and more.

The role of social work in ending hunger on campus

“The Trojan Food Pantry is by necessity an exercise in social work,” Wiewel said. “It’s a collaborative effort to increase access to food resources for underserved students.” The initiative to enroll USC students in CalFresh, the California state food grant program, has become one of the crucial social work-related functions of the food pantry.

When it became clear that many USC students may be eligible for public food grants, Wiewel and other food pantry coordinators began enlisting the help of student volunteers to help visitors determine their eligibility for this type of assistance. Ghadar, whose focus within the MSW program is Adult Mental Health and Wellness, has played a pivotal role in this effort — and he’s found that the benefits for students extend far beyond food security.

“Increasing students’ access to affordable meal options often opens the door for them to talk to me about other issues in their lives,” he said. “It’s given me the opportunity to become a better listener and to implement some of the evidence-based social work techniques I’m learning in the classroom every day.”

Ghadar said that many students who come to the food pantry need help with the basics: finding out whether they’re eligible for benefits, how to file the application, and what documents they need to provide. He walks students through the form and helps them to understand the steps involved, which can feel “overwhelming and confusing” for those who are unfamiliar with the process. If they are ineligible for a CalFresh grant, he encourages them to use the Trojan Food Pantry and refers them to additional local food resources, which may keep more items in stock and offer longer hours.

Ghadar, who will intern at the Trojan Food Pantry until the end of the school year, hopes to empower students who may feel reluctant about visiting. “There is no stigma or judgment here—your use of the pantry or your access to a CalFresh grant is entirely confidential. Don’t be afraid to reach out for help,” he said.

Using the Trojan Food Pantry

Located at Parkside Apartments, the Trojan Food Pantry is open Monday, Wednesday and Friday from 11:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. to any currently enrolled USC student who does not have a dining hall meal plan and is experiencing low food security. Eligible students may visit the Trojan Food Pantry once per week, where volunteer coordinators will assist them in selecting dry goods, fresh produce, water and hygiene products. Quantity limits may vary from day to day based on product availability and demand.

USC plans to extend the Trojan Food Pantry’s hours of operation to all five weekdays and expand services to the Health Sciences Campus.