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Retriever essentials program tackles food insecurity

Being a college student is hard enough without worrying about where the next meal is coming from. Most students spend their time worrying about balancing work and assignments, or having an active social life.

But for some students, their worries include how they’re going to eat and where they’re going to sleep. Due to a variety of circumstances, these students are facing homelessness while trying to earn a degree.

According to Doha Chibani, a clinical social worker and referral coordinator at the Counseling Center, students may find themselves in this situation due to family struggles or changes in financial situations. Students who live on campus can also face temporary homelessness if they are unable to move back home over the summer.

“These are students who are really very resilient. They are struggling but they are still insisting [on] being in school. When your basic needs are not met, you’re not going to think about other things. Education is not in basic needs, but these people who can barely find food [or] safety to sleep, are getting up and going to class. And they’re trying their hardest to turn in their assignments and homework and they often don’t even tell their professors,” says Chibani.

Homelessness may be couch surfing or bouncing from friend to friend until they can find a place to stay. Some students are even living out of their cars.

“You have to carry your stuff from place to place. Many of [the students] have to struggle for a little bit before we can find them a stable plan. So there is a lot of instability. It does definitely impact them academically, but there is a lot of resilience with it. We offer to work with them to let the professors know about ways to support them, but there’s this shame with it, and they don’t necessarily want to [tell their professors]. Some of them say ok, but some don’t,” says Chibani.

Faculty are some of the first people who encounter students who are struggling. Chibani encourages professors to take note if students are acting differently, such as suddenly missing lots of classes or dwindling grades and missed assignments.

“You start seeing signs,” says Chibani. “When you start talking to [students], they will tell you.”

Aside from providing counseling services, Chibani works to connect students to resources in the community that aren’t available on campus. Often, students come to Chibani with questions about how to get accessible healthcare, obtain health insurance, or even simply how to find food when they don’t have enough money.

Chibani says that students often don’t realize that they are eligible for government assistance and that they can easily apply for aid. Other times, the student’s case is more complicated and Chibani will work with that student to design a personalized plan.

One of the main assistance programs available for students is called Retriever Essentials. Retriever Essentials is a program designed to help relieve food insecure students by providing bags of non-perishable groceries. Students are able to pick up a free bag of food at any one of six distribution centers located around the campus.

The distribution centers are The Counseling Center, The Honors College, The Mosaic Center, The Women’s Center, Off Campus Student Services and Residential Life.

Students can self-identify their need and the bags are distributed without question.

“UMBC is a very caring university. I love that I can sit with a student and I’m bound by confidentiality but I often say to the student, ‘Do you mind signing a release for me to call financial aid?’ I have yet to have a student sit in my office and I haven’t been able to help them. All it takes is for them to come here. But as a university, there’s a lot of caring people from the top all the way to the bottom. We all work together hand in hand and we make sure to get them a plan that works,” says Chibani

The Retriever Essentials program began about one year ago when Nancy Young, the Vice President of Student Affairs, as well as other student affairs faculty and staff began to notice that there are members of the UMBC community struggling with food insecurity. Young has consistently gone above and beyond to help these students, says Chibani.

Although food insecurity is just once piece of the puzzle for homeless students, having a secure meal is a good first step to addressing other needs. Chibani cautions that student homelessness and food insecurity are complex and interconnected issues, but that having the support for food is an invaluable resource.

Retriever Essentials is a relatively new program, but the student affairs staff is hoping to grow it into an integral part of the community. According to Chibani, Retriever Essentials might become a service learning program through the Shriver Center to increase student involvement. There is also the possibility of the program receiving an AmeriCorps Vista grant, which would transform the program into its own entity.

Chibani hopes that students will take advantage of the program before their situation becomes dire.

“My hope is that students are aware of the program and speak about it and share it with other people,” said Chibani. “And that students who are interested in supporting and volunteering reach out because these students are here, they’re amongst us. Support each other.”