ASI suspends Cougar Pantry distributions, drawing criticism from students

An ASI team member who had worked at the Cougar Pantry tested positive for COVID-19

ASI+canceled+their+Cougar+Pantry+for+the+remainder+of+the+fall+semester%2C+a+decision+some+students+disagreed+with.

Kat Parra

ASI canceled their Cougar Pantry for the remainder of the fall semester, a decision some students disagreed with.

Ariana L. Kitts, News Reporter

ASI announced on Dec. 4 that they are canceling Cougar Pantry distributions for the remainder of the fall semester because an ASI team member tested positive for COVID-19. 

ASI President & CEO Michael Garrett announced in a Dec. 4 memorandum that ASI would suspend the Cougar Pantry because of a team member testing positive for COVID-19. (Screenshot from ASI’s Instagram)

ASI cannot disclose when the ASI team member tested positive or when they last worked the Cougar Pantry, but ASI was notified they tested positive on Dec. 3. 

ASI’s statement said that the COVID-19 case did not come from the Cougar Pantry, and that it is a low risk activity. 

The decision was made collectively by ASI. 

“We did not make this decision lightly as we know the ASI Cougar Pantry is a vital resource for so many of our students,” wrote ASI President & CEO Michael Garrett in the memorandum that announced the decision.

The announcement was met with criticism by some students on social media who emphasized the prevalence of food insecurity among students during the pandemic and believed that the Cougar Pantry could and should still be offered safely.

We did not make this decision lightly as we know the ASI Cougar Pantry is a vital resource for so many of our students.”

— Michael Garrett, ASI President & CEO

“Please know how much the decision is weighing on the team, especially after seeing unsupportive comments across social media,” said Garrett.

Feminists Unite, a CSUSM student organization, says they are confused as to why other options were not considered, besides closing Cougar Pantry. Feminists Unite and the Gender Equity Center felt compelled to write a letter to ASI, feeling frustrated and wanting explanations. 

Val Battle Haddock, vice president of Feminists Unite, said, “As a student org trying to represent our campus, we felt something had to be done, especially when some of us didn’t receive responses to our comments on their Instagram posts, even asking similar questions as others.” 

Feminists Unite and the Gender Equity Center sent a letter to ASI voicing their disagreement with the decision. “As a student org trying to represent our campus, we felt something had to be done,” said Val Battle Haddock (pictured), vice president of Feminists Unite. (Photo courtesy of Val Battle Haddock)

Garrett said ASI’s media and communication team is managed by a team of part-time students and professional staff, and although communicating is important to answer questions they receive in the comments, they “cannot guarantee [their] ability to respond to all comments.” 

Garrett said that sometimes social media managers do not know the answers to all questions being asked, and because of the part-time hours, there can be a lag with response times.

CSUSM students have suggested alternatives to shutting down the pantry, such as leaving prepackaged food on campus for students to pick up or delivering it to students homes, but Garrett said from “proven food safety practices” it is not recommended to leave food unsupervised. 

ASI also needs to track who utilizes pantry services to their partners in order to get access to low cost food in the inventory. 

“Unfortunately we do not have the staffing hours available that would be required to deliver food directly to students,” said Garrett.

Battle Haddock said that ASI could bring on more staff to work in the Cougar Pantry, mentioning the nearly $11,000 in donations that ASI Cougar Pantry recently received from Giving Day. “$11,000 was just donated, it doesn’t seem impossible to bring in more people. $11,000 was just donated, they didn’t just run out of money,” said Battle Haddock. 

However, Garrett said that ASI plans to use the nearly $11,000 raised on Giving Day to send food directly to students who live outside the local service area during the spring semester. 

“This semester we will also continue to offer CalFresh application assistance,” said Garett. 

Applying and justifying reasons as to why you need money for food is a vulnerable and personal situation, and relief is not immediate. For ASI to suggest they are substitutes feels disrespectful to food insecure students.”

— Val Battle Haddock, CSUSM student and vice president of Feminists Unite

Battle Haddock said that unlike Cougar Pantry, CalFresh and the Student Emergency Fund (SEF) do not provide immediate and inclusive relief to students. Undocumented students do not qualify for CalFresh. 

SEF and CalFresh also require paperwork and processing for relief which can take weeks, unlike the Cougar Pantry where you swipe your ID and obtain immediate relief. 

Battle Haddock brought up a study conducted by ASI in 2017 which reported 50.27 percent of CSUSM students are food insecure. 

“Applying and justifying reasons as to why you need money for food is a vulnerable and personal situation, and relief is not immediate. For ASI to suggest they are substitutes feels disrespectful to food insecure students, which is probably more than 50.27 percent since the pandemic,” said Battle Haddock. 

Garrett said that ASI is doing their best to connect students with local food distributions and updating their website and social media with local resources for immediate food access. 

 

We cannot endanger the pantry members and their families by forcing them into work … They are students too, and their health and safety are equally as important.”

— Michael Garrett, ASI President & CEO

“We cannot endanger the pantry members and their families by forcing them into work like we have seen with frontline workers across the country. They are students too, and their health and safety are equally as important,” said Garrett.

The pantry will be closed over winter break (the pause for winter break was already planned before the team member tested positive) and will reopen on Jan. 27.

“I am certain there will be improvements and more contingency plans that may arise due to the pandemic that we are currently facing [for next semester],” Garrett said.

“It feels like some backup plan will magically arise. A lot of it feels like excuses … What are the actual plans [for next semester]? Will they just close the pantry every time someone tests positive?” Battle Haddock questioned.

To learn about resources for food insecurity and basic needs, visit csusm.edu/asi/pantry/resources.html

The Cougar Chronicle The independent student news site of California