Demetria Conner was the first student in line at the new food pantry that opened recently at Olive-Harvey College on Chicago’s Far South Side.

Like many City Colleges of Chicago students, Conner faces challenging life circumstances as she seeks to obtain her degree. In recent years, she gradually began to lose her sight as a result of complications from diabetes, a condition she’s had since childhood. She’s undergone rehabilitation to improve her mobility, and to learn new software and tools for the visually impaired.

Demetria Conner was the first student in line at the Olive-Harvey College food pantry opening.

Now, at 48, Conner hopes to reenter the workforce and help provide for her four children, who range in age from 8 to 26.

“Giving up is not an option,” Conner said with a determined smile, holding bags of produce and other groceries.

Conner was not alone. A line of about 15 students formed immediately after the ribbon was cut in October at Olive-Harvey’s new Panther Pantry. Olive-Harvey was the seventh and final City College to open a permanent food pantry – a culmination of the partnership between City Colleges of Chicago and the Greater Chicago Food Depository that began in 2013.

Students lined up to enter the Panther Pantry at Olive-Harvey College after the ribbon was cut.

In total, the Food Depository partners with 11 colleges and universities in the Chicago area in order to help students facing food insecurity achieve their dreams.

“We believe everyone should access to food. It’s a basic human right,” said Nicole Robinson, the Food Depository’s vice president of community impact, at the opening ceremony. “To see students who are just trying to unleash their potential – we never want lack of food to be a barrier to what you’re trying to do.”

Nearly two-thirds of City Colleges of Chicago students experienced food insecurity, housing insecurity or homelessness during the previous year, according to a June 2019 report from the Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice at Temple University’s College of Education.

No one at the Food Depository or City Colleges is declaring “mission accomplished” with the opening of the permanent pantries. But increased access to food helps students focus more on classwork and less on where their next meal is coming from.

An Olive-Harvey College staff member prepares for the opening of the Panther Pantry in late October.

“Education is key but you can’t function if you don’t have anything in your stomach,” said student leader Jaylen Henry.

As for Conner, she’s hoping to eventually land a job in the healthcare field to help others with similar health challenges through rehabilitation. Despite her own struggles, Conner said there are other City College students in more dire financial situations.

The Panther Pantry will help them succeed, she said.

“I am so excited,” Conner said. “It’s needed so much.”