Yesterday, between teaching classes and attending a meeting, and before going to coach Lego League for her sons, Suffolk Community College faculty member Cynthia Eaton went shopping on behalf of her higher education union. She chose Cosco, because it’s a union shop, and she and colleague Misty Currelli, assistant professor of sociology, dropped $500 on food; the Faculty Association of SCC donated $400 and $100 was donated by a union member.
They took their heavy sacks of groceries to the food pantry on the Eastern campus – one of three food pantries on three campuses at SCC — to stock it for the holidays. As a child who grew up in family that survived on government cheese and rice, wild game that was hunted, and food from the garden, Eaton knows what it’s like to be hungry. She’s been homeless; she has lived in her car.
Education and helping hands changed her life. Turnaround is fair play, so it has been said.
About 20 miles away, her husband Sean Tvelia, vice president of the Faculty Association of SCC, and Kevin Peterman, association president, were grocery shopping on behalf of the union so that they could supply turkeys to the food pantry at the Grant Campus, which is operated by FA member Sister Mary Anne Borrello.
“Each year, she feeds over 200 families. This year, we were able to donate 16 turkeys and 7 turkey breasts to the program,” said Tvelia, professor of geology. Together with non-perishable food items, separated for families, the union contribution to the Grant Campus pantry was $400.
“This is part of the reason we’re unionists,” said Eaton. “We want to do for others what had been done for us.”
At the Ammerman Campus, food pantry director and FA union member Frank Vino accepted another $400 worth of food, including non-perishable items, from the FASCC. Each year now, the union donates a total of $1,200 for the holiday food program.
“We raised it last year because we have a higher percentage of students in need,” said Tvelia.
“Many of our students rely on the pantries for their holiday meal,” said Peterman, who oversees a union very involved with community, social justice, political action and workers rights. Learn more by checking out their newsletter, where articles about food insecurity pop up regularly.
“We’re in the middle of a federally designated food desert,” added Eaton, noting that the Eastern Campus is located in Riverhead, a community where the majority of residents live too far to walk to a supermarket or too far from the bus line to access a grocer. They are left relying on convenience stores, where there is no fresh produce and drastically limited selection of food. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, Riverhead is the largest food desert on Long Island.
WSHU public radio recently reported about the growing number of food deserts on Long Island, now numbering 25. Hunger relief officials report that 60 percent of Long Islanders are eligible for food stamps.
Thanksgiving outreach started at the Grant Campus in Brentwood in the mid-1970s, according Peterman, Today, the outreach includes all three campuses of SCC. At one time the FA donated to a local food pantry, but when it became obvious that so many students were in need, a pantry was opened on campus.
“Yesterday, it was reported in Newsday that there is a 6.6 percent rate of poverty on Long Island,” Tvelia said. “Most areas of poverty are near our campuses. A lot of time the students are waiting to get to the college for food.”
The active professor points out how hunger harms.
“College is tough enough. If you’re hungry and sitting in class, it’s worse,” he said.
Denny Teason, director of campus activities and student leadership development, is in charge of the food pantry on the Eastern campus of Suffolk CC. He said that, while all members of the campus community can access the pantry — both students and staff — students almost exclusively use it.
“The FA kindly makes a donation to the Eastern Campus pantry during the holiday season and it serves as a needed replenishment of the food that is accessed during the fall semester,” Teason said. The pantry is located right next to an exit door so students can easily walk into the parking lot with their food without having to worry about any possible stigma they might feel about needing food donations.
Most students are the age of typical college students; some are older students learning a new career; some are immigrants or the working poor.
“We have also felt a great deal of homelessness amongst our students who access the pantry,” Teason said. “High cost of living on Long Island is a contributor to why the need is so great.”
Teason pointed out that the lack of residence halls means that students come to SCC from surrounding communities, “so we feel very connected to who they are and what those communities are feeling.”
“Good unions work to get as many members involved in the life and vitality of the union as possible,” Tvelia said.
And sometimes that extends to union members families. Tvelia and Easton’s sons, Kai and Micah, joined in the food drop-offs. That is no surprise, since they are often seen at NYSUT’s annual Representative Assembly wearing shirts that say, “Union Made.” Pun intended.