A welcome sign posted near a Free Food Market in June 2019. Courtesy of Lori Coulter.

Portland State continues to hold Free Food Market for students and families in need

Portland State’s Free Food Market (FFM) will be providing groceries and pantry staples to students, families and anyone else in need of assistance on August 9.


The event takes place at the PSU park blocks, near Shattuck Hall. It’s open to anybody, and students don’t need to show proof of income or need in order to access it. PSU hosts the FFM on the second Monday of every month.


Food distribution is from 9–11 a.m. Students should bring their own bags, as the FFM does not provide them. All patrons and volunteers must wear a mask/face-covering and maintain at least a six-foot physical distance from others. 


Lori Coulter is the office manager of PSU’s Transfer & Returning Student Resource Center, and serves as one of the co-chairs for the Committee for Improving Student Food Security (CISFS). Coulter has been on the committee for the past four years.


“The Free Food Market is a partnership between the [CISFS] and the Oregon Food Bank (OFB) that brings free fresh produce and pantry staples to PSU students and the greater community,” Coulter said.


“This partnership is an effort to increase student access to healthy food options and to reduce student food insecurity,” Coulter explained. “We started the Free Food Market on campus primarily to support our PSU students, however, [the] Free Food Market is open to anybody.” 


Patrons don’t need to show proof of income to access the FFM, and the FFM only collects minimal data to report to the OFB. Coulter said this includes “the patron’s zip code, the number of people in their household that they cook and share meals with [and] whether it is their first time accessing our Free Food Market.” 


“Additionally, to help tell the story of student food insecurity at PSU, we also ask patrons if they are a student, a faculty or staff member or a member of the community [not affiliated with PSU],” Coulter said. 


The OFB provides all the food distributed at the FFM each month. They receive food from a variety of sources, including partnerships with regional farmers, the United State Department of Agriculture, grocery stores and other food producers.


“Free Food Market celebrated its 6th anniversary this past April,” Coulter said. “Before the COVID-19 pandemic, we were one of the largest free food markets in the state of Oregon, serving 350 to 400 families each month.”


In addition to the FFM, PSU students can access a variety of other food assistance resources on campus, for example the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).


“We have a group of trained SNAP application assistants who can answer questions or help a student complete an application to receive funds from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program,” Coulter stated.  


“We also offer emergency meal vouchers,” Coulter stated. “Students who are experiencing a food or financial crisis can receive a limited number of meal vouchers that they can use to get into Victor’s in Ondine [Hall].”


The emergency meal voucher program is designed as a temporary solution while students get connected to more long-term support or resources, such as applying for SNAP, shopping at the PSU food pantry or accessing the FFM. 


Students face difficulties like food insecurity or houselessness at a higher rate than average members of society. Rates of food insecurity and houselessness are even higher within PSU’s Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) community. 


The PSU Homelessness Research & Action Collaborative (HRAC) conducted a study of student food and housing insecurity in the fall of 2019.


The survey was administered in fall 2019, and all students and employees enrolled or employed at PSU were invited to participate. A total of 3,511 students (15% of all students) and 1,017 employees (28% of all employees) participated in the survey, according to the study. 


The research found that 44.6% of respondents experienced housing insecurity in the 12 months prior to completing the survey, 16.1% experienced houselessness in the 12 months prior and 47% experienced food insecurity in the 30 days before the survey. 


Moreover, the BIPOC community experienced “high rates of basic needs insecurity,” the study stated. “In particular, Native American students were almost twice as likely as White students to experience homelessness. They also had the highest rates of food insecurity, 66.4%.” 


HRAC conducted a follow-up survey of 166 students on their basic needs insecurity to consider the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and the shutdown. However, the updated study’s sample size and demographics may not entirely match those of the initial survey.


The COVID-19 updated survey found that 64.5% experienced housing insecurity since March 2020, a nearly 20% increase from the initial survey. 


It also found that 20.5% experienced houselessness, and 55.4% experienced food insecurity. Both these percentages increased due to the vagaries of the pandemic, including the effect on the BIPOC community.


This data is consistent with previous surveys conducted by the CISFS, as well as national student food insecurity research conducted by The Hope Center at Temple University.


PSU will continue to hold the FFM on a monthly basis. The event is typically supported by volunteers.


“Right now, volunteers for our Free Food Market are coordinated through the Oregon Food Bank,” Coulter said. “As we continue to move back to our pre-COVID operations, the Committee for Improving Student Food Security will start coordinating volunteers to help with various aspects of [the] Free Food Market.”


Those interested in volunteering can sign-up on the Oregon Food Bank’s website. For readers who are interested in financially supporting the FFM and other CISFS initiatives, they can make tax deductible donations to the CISFS through the PSU Foundation.