- Special Projects
At the University of Hawaii William S. Richardson School of Law, students are known to arrive on campus as early as 6 a.m. and not leave until late at night to take advantage of the quiet time for studying or research.
The small school, whose 2019 entering class is comprised of 83 full-time students and 20 part-timers, is in a two-story building framing an open-air courtyard where students can socialize and feel the warmth of the sun. It’s a place that will launch legal careers and potentially lucrative jobs.
It’s also an unlikely place for a food pantry to help those who might not have a steady supply of food.
But that’s what coming soon, thanks to an initiative led by three law students who were hearing stories about classmates unable to focus or concentrate on their studies because they were relying on chips or other empty calories to power them through the day.
“It is a lot of time to go to the grocery store, figure out what it is we’re going to get, how much we’re going to spend, (wonder) do we even have that much to spend?” said Kelly Kwan, 24.
The first-year law student, along with fellow first-year student MJ McDonald and third-year student Ian Tapu, are spearheading an effort to keep a constantly replenished food pantry in the student lounge. It will be known as “CJ’s Cubby,” after the namesake of the school, Chief Justice Richardson.
The plan is to provide healthy snacks and breakfast foods with an emphasis on low sugar or low sodium, including fresh fruits and vegetables. They also want to stock a large cupboard with more substantive items like rice, beans or quinoa that students can take home.
While attending law school might connote privilege or financial security, the reality is far from it.
Most students at UH’s law school take on loans. The rigor of full-time coursework does not allow for an outside job. And while the $22,000 in-state tuition is among the lowest in the country, transportation and housing costs in Honolulu can force students to crimp on the most basic needs.
“It’s almost like a rude wake-up call,” said Tapu, 33, a Kahuku native who attended Dartmouth College. “I thought after I graduated from college, I would stop struggling, but when you go to law school, you’re (met with), ‘You still struggle?'”
The students’ effort to make the lounge a welcoming and inconspicuous place to grab food when the need arises is multi-faceted. It includes saving leftover food from school-organized lunch events and bringing it into the lounge and notifying students.
“It should feel like it’s your uncle and auntie’s home and you feel comfortable, so you open (the cupboard) and (not wait until) the middle of the night because you’re so shamed,” Tapu says.
Food insecurity is a widespread problem across college campuses around the country, particularly in high cost cities. About 45% of college respondents from more than 100 institutions said they had uncertain access to food over a 30-day period, according to a recent survey.
UH Manoa did its own student survey in 2009, finding that 1 in 5 college students were food insecure, while another 1 in 4 were at risk of being so.
A similar, more recent study across the UH campus system was initiated by UH West Oahu professors last year, but it’s still in the peer review process.
“Food security is a problem across all ages and stages of life,” said Andrea Freeman, an associate professor of law at UH who specializes in food policy. “It’s not something that affects (just) young people or students.”
And grad students are certainly not immune from the struggle.
At the law school, student loans are disbursed at the start of each semester. The end of the semester is typically when students are “usually pinching pennies,” according to Tapu.
Additionally, if someone isn’t from Hawaii and lacks a built-in support network here or has children to support, or is going to school part-time while holding down a job, that can amplify their food needs.
“When you’re in a graduate professional degree environment, the perception is that perhaps folks should be in a better place to care for themselves,” said Derek Kobayashi, an attorney with the Schlack Ito law firm and lecturer at the law center. “I’m not sure that translates with transportation, housing and other costs.”
Fortunately, the law school has a pipeline from the professional field to the campus that is robust.
The school has roughly an 80-20 ratio of in-state students versus out-of-state students, and about 80 percent of its graduates go on to work in a wide variety of jobs in Hawaii after graduation, based on Hawaii State Bar Association data, according to Ronette Kawakami, associate dean for student services at the law school.
Kobayashi, along with Angela Lovitt, another lecturer at the school, sits on a lawyer well-being task force that’s based on a model by the American Bar Association. When they got wind of what the students wanted to do with “CJ’s Cubby,” they emailed about a dozen alumni of the school or fellow lecturers at the school.
In the span of a week, they collected about $1,000 that has been used to supply sandwiches and bentos for the law students’ last week during the “reading period” leading up to finals. The remaining funds were donated to the students for the food pantry. (The school also offers something called “Pro Se Cafe” during the reading period to ease the stress of exam prep with free light breakfasts and other meals).
Starting in January, the food pantry will be propped by a $150 a semester allocation from UH Student Bar Association funds.
Eventually, the students hope to have one rotating “law firm sponsor” each month to sustain the food collection.
“The beauty of this law school is that it’s small and cooperative in nature,” said Lovitt, a 1997 UH Law graduate. “They get to know each other in a different way than I think would happen at a bigger institution. They’re empowered to support each other and take on initiatives like this.”
When Kobayashi was attending the school in the late 1980s, he doesn’t recall students complaining about hunger. But he had a regimen that kept costs down to a minimum.
“I would study at the beach, come to class, leave my home lunch in the refrigerator and that was one of the strategies I used to get by,” he said. “I was relying on student loans and I had a local support network. But I do know if I had to feed myself or buy groceries or prepared meals, I couldn’t afford it.”
A campus meal plan is neither cheap nor convenient for law students, some of whom commute long distances to get to campus. On UH’s upper campus, students have access to a food court, but by the law school the only nearby food option is a crepe shop.
UH Manoa has its own food vault that is open to full-time, part-time, graduate and undergraduate students.
The law school student lounge is a cozy space open to law students 24 hours a day, requiring a code to enter.
The small space has plush brown couches, a microwave and refrigerator. On a recent visit, snacks like packages of microwave popcorn, chips and instant coffee and hot cocoa lined a table.
McDonald said her undergrad institution, the University of Puget Sound in Washington state, had a food bank but said this effort feels much more tailored. “Here, it’s a much smaller community and so one, it feels easier to make a difference, and two, we’re also here, like all the time,” she said.
Finding ways to help students cope with expenses is not limited to the law school.
At UH’s John A. Burns School of Medicine, where in-state tuition is $36,672, a faculty member and former chief of staff at Queens Medical Center was so unsettled by what he read from med school scholarship applications, he decided to set up an emergency fund to help students.
“I learned that some of our students have overwhelming debt,” Dr. Robert Hong, a cardiologist, wrote by explanation. “Some are using food stamps to get by and others are late for assignments when their bus is overdue.”
The law students plan to open the food pantry as soon as winter break so it will be available to students who will still be around before classes resume Jan. 13.
“Law school is so demanding we sometimes forget to take care of ourselves,” Tapu said. “The goal of the student food bank is to have this culture of providing for everyone, even though you may not necessarily have the need.
“This is a community effort, there is no shame involved.”
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