Graduate Students at the Forefront of Veteran Food Security

“We truly need to integrate agriculture into our urban systems to tackle food insecurity for the populations that are most underserved.” -Kathleen Chen

Kathleen, a second year graduate student, and Yi Shen, a first year graduate student, are tackling food insecurity for over 50 veterans through an ambitious renovation of the VA (Veterans Affairs) Garden. The duo, both studying chemistry, work through the INFEWS (Innovations at the Nexus of Food, Energy, and Water Systems) program to improve access to nutritious food, create jobs, build community, and aid in therapy for psychological issues veterans often face.


Veterans and Volunteers Planting at the VA Garden. Photo by Tammy Wong.

The Facts on Food Insecurity

The USDA defines food insecurity as a state in which “consistent access to adequate food is limited by a lack of money and other resources at times during the year.” Two terms, low food security and very low food security break the definition down further. Low food security may result in reduced variety, quality, or desirability of diet, while very low food security, formerly known as food insecurity with hunger results in actual reduced food intake.

In America, 1 in 8 people report being in a state of food insecurity, and among veterans, the numbers are much higher. More than 1 in 4 veterans (27%) from Iraq and Afghanistan wars report problems with food security, where 15% of those surveyed reported low food security and 12% reported very low food security.


In 2016, UCLA committed a total of $16.5 million to a partnership with the Department of Veterans Affairs. This money was dedicated to, among other actions, the rejuvenation of the VA garden. This kickstarted the transformation of the area into a space for recreation, leisure, and therapy, as well as an easy way to provide nutritious food to veterans in the area. Yi and Kathleen’s project has been in the works since September 2018, and catalyzes the overall process through four objectives.

Kathleen and Yi’s “Four Specific Aims”

In order to achieve improved food security for veterans in the area, Kathleen and Yi outlined their goals as follows:

  1. Develop a planting guide and schedule for the 16 raised garden beds available. The planting guide includes not only which plants to sow, but also accounts for companion planting: how to combine plants to minimize water usage and support growth. The schedule outlines when to sow seeds, transfer sprouts to beds, water, fertilize, and finally harvest the produce.
  2. Determine which nearby public lands other than the raised beds may have potential to grow more food. Criteria are that the land is affordable to clear, close to a water source, fertile, and uncontaminated. This is done through collaboration with the INFEWS design team and soil testing team.
  3. Create a compost system. Currently, all compost materials are put on trucks and sent to an industrial composting plant, and the garden must purchase fertilizers from outside sources. An ideal system would cycle compost to fertilizer within the garden property, eliminating external processes. Another benefit of a composting system on-site is that it creates tasks for veteran-community engagement.
  4. Identify ways to inspire veterans to interact with the garden. This can be done through direct food distribution; classes on gardening, cooking, and nutrition; and temporary paid jobs, including maintenance of buildings and the garden.

Classes on gardening, cooking, and nutrition can be held in outdoor rooms near the garden. Photo by Yi Shen.

So far, Aims 1, 2, and 4 are close to completion, but the project ends for Kathleen and Yi at the end of Fall Quarter, 2018. Though they will no longer be heading the initiative, Kathleen plans to continue volunteering at the garden, and continue with her research in “soil conditioners to improve water conservation in agriculture.” She feels that the project “was really beneficial for giving context to [her] own research and strengthening [her] motivations.”

The garden restoration continues only with maintained volunteer contribution. Feeding more than 50 veterans through small-scale agriculture is no simple task, but the success of the program thus far signifies a major step towards improving food security for the veteran community as a whole.

To get involved with Kathleen and Yi’s project, either as a volunteer or even a new project manager, email either of them directly at or A volunteer sign-up form can also be found here.

Click here to learn more about the benefits of the VA garden on employment, social well-being, and psychological health.


Patience Olsen is an undergraduate student at UCLA majoring in Civil Engineering. In addition to blogging for the EatWell Pod, she volunteers at the Mildred E. Mathias Botanical Garden on campus, and is a member of the ASCE Environmental Design project.


Food Security on UCLA’s Campus

We often don’t think of food security as being an issue for college students. With dining halls and plenty of on campus restaurants, it would seem as if food is available to all students at all times. However, according to a 2016 study, 19% of students surveyed indicated having “very low” food security, while another 23% had “low” food security. Food security, according to the United Nations, exists when everyone has economic, physical, and social access to nutritious food. This means over 40% of the UC student population struggles to obtain nutritious food regularly.

From the same 2016 survey, only about 17% of the students received information on resources available, either on campus or in the community, to help combat food insecurity. Thus, this article strives to explain the variety of resources for UCLA undergraduate or graduate students, as well as staff and faculty, who may be experiencing food insecurity.

Some programs on UCLA’s campus are geared specifically towards students. For instance, the Economic Crisis Response meal voucher program sets aside a certain amount of meal vouchers, which can be used in the dining halls, every year for students in need. These meal vouchers can be picked up at the LGBT Center, Dashew, Bruin Resource Center (BRC), Community Programs Office (CPO), and the Transfer and Veteran student centers. Swipe Out Hunger at UCLA helps to enrich this program by collecting unused dining hall swipes at the end of each quarter and converting those swipes into meal vouchers.

The CPO Food Closet is another student-oriented resource on campus, which can be found in the Student Activities Center (SAC), room 111. Founded in 2009, the Food Closet aims to gather uneaten food from events, that would normally go to waste, or donations, and redistribute it to students who may be in need. The Food Closet is open Monday through Friday from 8am-6pm.

CalFresh, a California-government sponsored resource, is available not only for students, but for faculty and staff who are eligible as well. When enrolled in CalFresh, you could receive up to $194 a month for groceries which can be spent at places like Ralph’s, Whole Foods, and Trader Joe’s. While CalFresh is a state-wide resource, UCLA has its own CalFresh Initiative, located in SAC CPO 105E. This initiative, dedicated to enrolling eligible students in CalFresh, also has a Pre-Screening Tool to help you find out if you’re eligible for the program.

There are also many resources just outside of UCLA, like Café 580. Café 580 is located at 580 Hilgard Avenue, just across the street from campus and offers free food, internet, and study space for students. Café 580 also has various events advertised on their Facebook page to provide social connections along with food resources.

The Santa Monica Food Bank is a community resource, also available for UCLA students, staff and faculty. Located at 1710 22nd Street, their goal is to help provide food to low-income families in hopes of alleviating the stress of deciding between buying food or paying rent.

A nationwide resource available to UCLA students, both during their time at UCLA and beyond, is Dial 2-1-1. 2-1-1 provides resources ranging from housing, health and other crises needs. Specifically, it can give information on food pantries and other programs that can help address food insecurity in your community.

UCLA and its surrounding community offers a wide variety of food insecurity resources. While we may not be able to ensure food security for all students, we at least can make sure everyone is aware of the resources available, and hopefully takes advantage of them if they are in need.

To learn more about food security at UCLA, visit the food security page of our website.

Aurora Finley is an undergraduate student at UCLA majoring in English. Along with blogging for the UCLA Healthy Campus Initiative, she is the Sexperts Executive Director for the 2017-18 academic year. She is also a regular volunteer for UCLA’s Habitat for Humanity chapter and blogs for the online UCLA Odyssey community.

CalFresh Initiative

The CalFresh Initiative at UCLA Aims to End Food Insecurity for College Students

College students are hungry. For some time, the accepted explanation for student hunger has been “it’s just part of the typical, struggling college-student experience.” However, this narrative that college students are supposed to survive on the cup-of-noodles diet undermines the reality that many students do not have consistent access to nutritious food, go to bed hungry some nights, and/or have to choose between paying rent and buying groceries each month. According to the University of California’s 2017 Global Food Initiative report, 48% of UC undergraduate and 25% of graduate students “experience some level of food insecurity.” Given these alarming statistics, it is important that universities not only offer food security resources to students, but also increase awareness of and access to these resources in a destigmatized environment. So where are these resources at UCLA? And do students know about UCLA’s rich basic needs landscape? That’s where the CalFresh Initiative at UCLA comes in.

CalFresh 101

So what is CalFresh? CalFresh is California’s version of SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), a federally-funded food assistance program, colloquially known as food stamps. Thanks to recent legislation, parts of CalFresh have been tailored to meet the specific needs and experiences of college students, allowing eligible students to receive up to $192/month for groceries. Most students qualify for CalFresh if they have work study, receive CalGrant A or B, have a child, or work over 20 hours per week outside of UCLA. After completing the application process with a Department of Public Social Services (DPSS) eligibility worker and receiving approval, students receive an EBT (electronic benefits transfer) card, which is re-loaded monthly and functions as a debit card in participating grocery stores (Ralphs, Target, Trader Joe’s, and Whole Foods all accept EBT!). Given the benefits of CalFresh and the large percentage of students who are food insecure, it is problematic that only 2% of UCLA students who are eligible for CalFresh are enrolled (according to data provided by DPSS). The CalFresh Initiative at UCLA aims to increase awareness of and enrollment in CalFresh among students.  


The CalFresh Initiative at UCLA was brought to campus last year by UCLA’s Global Food Initiative Fellows in order to streamline the CalFresh application process for students. In addition to our daily outreach, the CalFresh Initiative at UCLA hosts quarterly CalFresh enrollment days, bringing several DPSS workers to campus in an effort to boost enrollment and make the application process more accessible for students. This quarter, we partnered with other organizations on campus to expand from just a CalFresh enrollment day to a broader Basic Needs Resource Fair, where students could learn about the landscape of on-campus resources — and pick up free food bundles! Some of the organizations tabling at the fair were SWC Bruin Necessities, BruinDine, Imperfect Produce, Financial Wellness Peers, California Lifeline with Cafe 580 (free cellphones and cellphone plans), Swipe Out Hunger, and the USAC External Vice President office who were phone banking for SB 900, which would grant more CalFresh dollars to fresh produce.

Over the past three enrollment fairs, about 300 UCLA students have enrolled in CalFresh. Since starting the CalFresh Initiative at UCLA last year, we have also helped about 400 students apply for CalFresh via email. We are thrilled to share that starting March 5th of this quarter, for the first time ever, we will have a CalFresh eligibility worker from DPSS on campus in the Student Activities Center (SAC) every first and third Monday of the month to enroll students in CalFresh through private appointments. Although anyone can apply for CalFresh anytime online, applying through an in-person appointment is a much simpler and more efficient process. Fill out this pre-screening tool to find out if you are eligible for CalFresh and to see what verification documents you need to apply. Then sign up here for an on-campus CalFresh enrollment appointment. Check out our infographics below for more details.

Beyond the basic needs infrastructure and resources that UCLA offers, CalFresh enrollment provides a sustainable solution for food insecure students that is not limited by university hours and buildings. CalFresh recipients can comfortably choose what they would like to eat from a grocery store, and are not limited to buying cheap, and often unhealthy, food.

Our team at the CalFresh Initiative is working towards the day when CalFresh is a destigmatized conversation, and when the most important worry on students’ minds is their next midterm and not their next meal.

Some important, readily available food security resources on or near campus are:

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Contact the CalFresh Initiative at UCLA at

Like us on Facebook at UCLA CalFresh Initiative.

Shelly Dieu is the Global Food Initiative Fellow leading the CalFresh Initiative at UCLA. She conducts research with the School of Public Health and is a third-year Geography/Environmental Studies major and Geographic Information Systems and Food Studies minors.

Sienna Rohrer is the Outreach Coordinator at the CalFresh Initiative at UCLA. She is a second-year Geography/Environmental Studies major and likely Geographic Information Systems and Food Studies minors.

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Kleiman supervising event attendees at What’s on the Plate? The Sustainability of Social Enterprises. This was the last event in the ten-week Off the Table series.

Serving up Praxis: Reflecting on Off the Table at UCLA

“All right, let’s start cooking.” Our metal stools scraped back all at once and we began forming small groups.  “We need 3-4 people at each ricotta station, and some more at the vegetable station!”

Evan Kleiman, host of KCRW’s Good Food, was trying to direct us above all the clatter. Over 30 participants had come together that Thursday night in the industrial workspace at LA Kitchen for a panel about food-focused social enterprises in Los Angeles. Kleiman moderated discussion between Anar Joshi from Everytable, Kaitlin Mogentale from Pulp Pantry, Nick Panepinto from LA Kitchen, and Karla T. Vasquez from SalviSoul. The cooking class afterword was a bonus.

Over the past ten weeks UCLA’s Graduate Food Studies Certificate program has worked with several UCLA departments and initiatives (including the Luskin School of Public Affairs, the Healthy Campus Initiative, the Latino Policy and Politics Initiative, the Center for the Study of Women, the Chicano Studies Research Center, the Department of Gender Studies, and off campus groups LA Kitchen and the Hammer Museum), to collectively produce Off the Table, a series of events that brought together advocates, policy-makers, business people, and students to think about food in complex ways. Each event built on another. It began with a troupe of Luskin students volunteering at Wattles Farm Community Garden in Hollywood, where participants got their hands dirty helping out with daily chores. Community gardens were the subject again when the Student Veterans Resource Center hosted a panel discussing the benefits of farming and gardening for veterans. A screening of the biopic Dolores followed by a talk from Dolores Huerta’s daughter, Maria Elena Chavez, from the  Dolores Huerta Foundation, built upon ideas of advocacy and the importance of community partnerships in a panel discussion entitled Harvesting ChangeA classroom lecture by Meyer Luskin about his own food waste recycling business set the tone for the conversations around socially responsible food enterprises at our last panel and cooking class at LA Kitchen.

Food is a complicated beast. From the science of agriculture to the artistry of cooking and the many cultural meanings we put on food itself, there is no doubt that how we grow, distribute, access, and throw away our food will pose significant challenges in rapidly changing political and ecological climates. Off the Table demonstrated how UCLA plans to meet this challenge. Practitioners, thinkers, and advocates from diverse disciplines must come together to share knowledge and collaborate on solutions. That’s why the Graduate Food Studies Certificate is offered to all graduate students on campus. Students from disciplines as disparate as anthropology, history, public health, and urban planning learn to communicate with each other about food. They then take those skills with them into the world, where they can successfully work together.

The event at LA Kitchen was just a small sampling of that ethos. Hardly anywhere else could there be such a quick turnaround between theory and practice. One moment we were discussing triple bottom lines and the next we were three-deep around a saucepan watching milk slowly transform into ricotta. While we were cooking, we had a chance to keep sharing our thoughts about the panel in between admiring each other’s knife skills. The entire event was an incredibly nuanced way of learning about a complex issue. We left that night knowing each other a little better, with new knowledge about food-focused enterprises in LA, with food. Lots and lots of food.

Jessa Orluk is the Project Assistant for the Graduate Food Studies Certificate Program and a student in the Master of Urban and Regional Planning program.