People begin trickling into the Tri-College Center around 10 a.m. on the third Friday of every month.

Within an hour that trickle grows to a steady stream of bodies from the community, Merced College and UC Merced, all looking to take advantage of the UC Merced Food Pantry.

Students and employees from the two schools as well as local residents that find themselves in need of supplemental help can get free hygiene products, canned goods, juice, peanut butter, beans, rice and produce. The food is provided by the Merced County Food Bank, with additional produce occasionally donated by outside sources.

Merced College and UC Merced students just need to bring their student IDs to utilize the pantry, while community members need to provide some kind of proof of address. Volunteers from UC Merced and the College help facilitate the event, passing out the food as well as pulling carts to help participants get their months’ worth of supplies back to their cars.   

“Merced College and UC Merced have collaborated on this for the last four years,” Foods & Nutrition professor Jennifer Hobbs said. “We first started working together back when I was at UC Merced. We’ve always used the Tri-College Center for the food pantry, because UC Merced didn’t have the space for it. I thought it was silly that we were out here and no Merced College students were a part of it, so I contacted Michelle (Pecchenino) to see if she had any ideas on how we could get the College involved.”

The pair settled on using the Merced College Food & Nutrition students to prepare simple, tasty and healthy meals that were made from the ingredients available in the food pantry that month. The students initially gave cooking demonstrations as well, but the 10- to 15-minute demos weren’t conducive to the flow of the rest of the event.

The Food & Nutrition students spent Friday afternoon providing samples of a southwestern pork salad and peanut butter raisin cookies as well as answering general questions and passing out the recipes they’d created.

Sophomore Julia Johnson said the students enjoy the challenge of a “Chopped” like mystery basket.

“It can be a challenge, because we don’t know what the ingredients are until Thursday,” Johnson said. “We use the USDA Mixing Bowl website. You plug in the different ingredients you get and then they give you recipe suggestions based off of that.

“We try to keep them low salt, low sugar and then simple and easy to follow.”

Hobbs said in addition to the challenge of creating healthy meals, the students need to think about what they can transport and how many portions they can tangibly create in the allotted time.

“The thing with the food pantry items is a lot of times you get things that don’t really go together,” Hobbs said. “What are you going to do with peanut butter and canned pork? So I think a lot of the people coming in are really appreciative of the recipes and suggestions our students make.

“The whole thing is just a great collaborative effort that gives back to the community. We’re working on getting more Merced College students involved, but everyone that has helped put it on has really enjoyed the experience.”