Koko Mulder was not the typical portrait of a college undergrad. A first-generation college student in her 40s, she was a single mom of two daughters, ages 8 and 10, trying to juggle a full academic load at UC Berkeley with parenting.

Koko Mulder

UC Berkeley staffer Koko Mulder, rear, organizes food inside the Bear Pantry that she launched in 2009 to help student parents like her who qualify for financial aid.

And she was out of food.

Her financial aid disbursement hit an unexpected delay, and in the middle of her second semester in 2007, Mulder found herself without money or food for her girls.

“The impact was really hard, and not just on a nuts and bolts level,” she said. “It raised a lot of doubts in my head about just how appropriate it was to be a student with dependent children.”

Other students familiar with Mulder’s plight invited her and her children to dinner or offered other help that allowed the family to survive for two weeks while Mulder’s application for food stamps was being approved.

Not an isolated case

“What stuck with me was I kept hearing from friends ‘when I ran out of food last fall…’ or ‘when I ran out of food last spring...’” she said. “That’s when I thought, if this is happening over and over again, we have to do something for the next single parent undergraduate.”

She did. Mulder galvanized student groups to hold food drives and, in 2009, she opened the Bear Pantry, where student parents who qualify for financial aid can receive a $30 grocery store giftcard and two-week supply of food, enough to keep a family from starving while the parent applies for the Calfresh food stamp program or other long-term aid. Recipients can receive a food box twice a semester.

Mulder, who completed her bachelor’s degree in sociology in 2010, is now an academic program coordinator at UC Berkeley and remains at the pantry’s helm.

Today, the Bear Pantry serves about 20 to 30 families each semester, reaching a high of 50 student parents during its busiest period last year.

Nationally, 13 percent of college students are single parents, according to the Center for Postsecondary and Economic Success.

In a field near University Village, the Bear Pantry’s stock of packaged goods sits safe and dry in an unmarked cargo container donated by Allied Storage Containers. The inventory, largely donated through student-run food drives, ranges from oatmeal and pancake mix to peanut butter and canned beans.

This isn’t gourmet food by anyone’s definition, Mulder says. But they are healthy staples parents can use to build multiple meals.

If the pantry runs out of a key item, Mulder uses financial donations to replenish, but she reserves the bulk of the monetary donations for the giftcards, which parents can use to buy milk, eggs and other perishables that cannot be easily stored in the cargo container.

In opening the Bear Pantry, Mulder focused on making the process as easy and efficient as possible.

Challenges for student parents

Student parents, she said, face enough challenges getting help as it is. Community food banks have specific hours that often clash with class schedules. Campus dining halls provide meals for students with meal plans, but they’re not designed to accommodate a student’s children. Applying for food stamps requires submitting proof of earned income, which full-time students don’t always have.

“Student parents are trying to take care of their kids while turning in papers, making their study groups, and keeping their GPA up in a very competitive academic environment,” she said. “It’s really hard. I wanted to make access to the pantry as simple as I could.”

Students who need pantry assistance don’t have to fill out forms; they qualify by providing a printout of their UC Berkeley financial aid record. They can schedule a time to pick up a food box, or Mulder or student volunteers often deliver boxes personally.

Mulder’s definition of success is one in which the Bear Pantry ceases to exist.

“I’d like to work with campus housing and dining to come up with a workable meal plan system where student parents can access food,” she said.

For now, she’s on an education campaign. She speaks to groups on and off campus, helping people understand the challenges student parents can face.

“Nobody ever intended to make it hard for student parents to access resources. It’s just that when people think of students, they don’t naturally think student parents,” she said. “They always seem surprised that this group exists. If it becomes part of the dialogue, it will eventually become part of the solution.”