Who are the faces of hunger? Normal, everyday people

Food insecurity is more common than most Americans think. People who skip meals because they can’t pay for them, or feel uncertain of where their next meal will come from, don’t all fit a stereotype or look a certain way.

North Lake College (NLC) employees learned these lessons when they debuted a charity drive called Santa Bucks almost 20 years ago. Back then, NLC Student Publications Manager Kathleen Stockmier and her team expected to give away a few toys, gifts, and canned foods to students who lost their jobs during a temporary economic crisis in 2001.

But demand was far higher than anyone could have expected that year and in the years following, and Santa Bucks was expanded into a permanent effort.

“It was more people than we thought,” Stockmier says. “It was normal, everyday people who you look at and don’t think there is anything wrong with them.”

A permanent effort to assist 

Since that first year, Santa Bucks has continued to serve those on campus who are facing hardships. About 200 students take free items (including food, accessories, clothing, books and more) from Santa Bucks each year – which is roughly 2% of the entire NLC student body. Many also take gifts for their children; about one in five food-insecure community college students has children to feed.

With that level of need, it became obvious a single day of giving wasn’t enough.

“People are hungry every day,” Stockmier says. “People need things every day.”

Creating a year-round solution

So NLC took the next step by launching a Blazer Student Store in 2011, which would allow year-round aid for those in need. Although it’s called a store, nothing in stock is sold for money. Instead, students trade in used goods, receive play money from instructors for good classwork, or request the play money from the Student Life or Counseling offices, at no charge.

The Blazer Student Store keeps detailed “customer” logs of every day of service, from its opening to the present. The logs show that each day, around a dozen members of the NLC community come in seeking help.

Stockmier says she has learned a lot about student hardship from her work at the store.

“We’ve seen it firsthand that there are food insecurities, and people won’t ask you for food because they’re embarrassed,” Stockmier explains. “We’ve had students sleep on campus, use the showers. One year one guy had a tent and he put it up in a tree.”

She adds, “I know that there are a lot that we don’t know about.”

Committed to the cause

As daunting as the challenge of student homeless and food insecurity is, the North Lake College community is united in its efforts to help. Through the Blazer Market, a fully-equipped food pantry that opened just last month; the Blazer Student Store, with its clothing and household goods; and the original Santa Bucks holiday drive, NLC continues to provide assistance to those in need.

“We have such a generous campus,” Stockmier says, with obvious pride. “The whole school is involved with it. People want to bring stuff. They want it to go to our students. The success comes from a family of good people on our campus who are loving and giving and sharing.”

Are you an NLC student who could use some help? We’re here for you.

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