Free Cafe Helps Struggling UCLA Students Eat

The atmosphere is comfortable, the discussion lively and the food plentiful. It's also free.

By Lolita Lopez
|  Tuesday, Nov 8, 2011  |  Updated 6:26 PM PDT
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580 Cafe feeds UCLA students forced to choose between books and food.

Lolita Lopez

580 Cafe feeds UCLA students forced to choose between books and food.

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An off-campus cafe housed in St. Alban's Episcopal Church near UCLA provides free meals and snacks to students, no questions asked. Most days, the only question for many students, such as UCLA senior David Velazquez, is books or food?

"I will have to buy a book online and I won't have money for food, so that is where you have to make those tough decisions... we have other siblings that my parents can't afford to give me, you know, like thousands of dollars. They are almost making like poverty wages," said the 21-year-old.

"The students at this point are not paying for anything. All the food is donated or fund raised through the support of the St. Albans Church, the United Methodist Church and the Episcopal Church Diocese," said Jeanne Roe Smith.

Smith officially serves as the United Methodist Campus minister at UCLA and helps run 580 Cafe.  She says it began after a conversation about the increasing financial stresses on students. It has now been open full time for nearly two years. The cafe is open Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., and receives 30 to 40 students each day. On Mondays and Tuesdays, the cafe serves hot meals working with Meals On Wheels West LA and its provider St. Vincent's Meals On Wheels.

Velazquez says his in-state tuition each quarter is $4,700, or some $13,000 a year. The young man from Guadalajara, Mexico, came to the United States when he was 10 years old. He completed high school in Oceanside. Nowadays, Velazquez works two jobs and pays $500 a month in rent to share a room with a friend in Westwood.

"I have to pay for books. I have to pay for transportation needs back and forth from my job, so a lot of times I budget for specific gear. I am pressed for my budget for food so the cafe really helps out to supplement the empty space in my budget," Velazquez said.

Mayra Medina, 29, is a married mother with a 5-year-old son. She postponed college in order to provide for her parents and younger siblings. After completing two years in community college, she was accepted at UCLA and decided it was time to accomplish her dream of becoming the first college graduate in her family.

"To some people a bachelor's degree doesn't mean anything, but my parents only completed third grade so that's huge," Medina said.

Patrons of 580 Cafe cross various ethnic and cultural backgrounds. They are undocumented immigrants, medical and law students, and recently, a population most would not think of.

"We are seeing in the last year an even greater increase in what looks like, across the margin, even pushing into what you would think is the normal college student who comes from a middle-income family," Smith added.

Velasquez and Medina are taking their helping hand and extending it. Velazquez has helped start the Student Hunger Task Force on campus. Medina, who travels nearly half an hour to and from school from her home in Culver City, runs a nonprofit, Iglesia Cristiana Oasis, in her community.

"Let's say you spend $10 a day for food. That's $50 a week. That's $200 month. Definitely 580 has been a great resource for me in the sense I can come and eat and I don't have to worry and I can save those $10 for tuition," Medina said. "I am willing to sacrifice here and there to attain this education."

Smith hopes to create an environment where students feel comfortable to deal and discuss their issues in an open space.

"Where I see it going is to continue to be a positive presence where it just isn't about food anymore but about the spirit about being one, a good person, learning to be fully who you are," Smith said.

You can get more information on 580 Cafe by calling Jeanne Smith at 310-909-4471.

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