May/June 2019 Issue
April 18, 2019

Union members lead the way feeding the hungry on campus

Author: Liza Frenette
Source: NYSUT United
food pantry
Caption: From left, Sarah Smith, Jim Shevlin and Bonnie Eannone, members of the United University Professions chapter at SUNY Old Westbury help out at the campus food pantry. Students — and some faculty — rely on the pantry to battle hunger on campus. Photo provided.

Beneath the noises of co-eds talking in campus crowds, far less noticeable than music belting out from the open windows of dorm rooms, the sounds of hunger are coming from students who do not have enough to eat.

According to a 2016 Hunger on Campus study, about 25 percent of students at community colleges are food insecure. The study, published by the National Student Campaign Against Hunger & Homelessness, found a nearly similar number of students at four-year schools struggling with the same problem — about 20 percent.

There are multiple factors manifesting student hunger. Financial aid has not kept pace with rising tuition and housing. More students are parents. Often there is a choice between costly textbooks and meals. Transportation for college students is often limited, resulting in reduced access to food.

So many campuses are home to students with significant food insecurity that, last year, Gov. Cuomo mandated State and City University of New York colleges to set up food pantries or provide stigma-free access to free food to meet the needs of students.

The mandate bolsters the actions that unions have been taking to get food into the hands of hungry students, and some adjunct faculty, as well, who work for meager pay.

At the University at Albany, union faculty and staff formed a food pantry committee in 2015. They successfully obtained NYSUT Chapter Action Project grants to set up and host UUP Fight Campus Hunger 5k fundraisers, said Greta Petry, a former pantry committee member and a member of the United University Professions chapter.

Initially, the Fight Campus Hunger group opted to use the services of the local St. Vincent de Paul’s Food Pantry to help students. For its second 5k, the committee partnered with Sodexo campus food services and raised $10,000, which was split between St. Vincent’s pantry and a regional food bank distribution center.

The college set up a system so students could order food online from St. Vincent’s. Upon picking the food up, it was brought to a central location on the uptown campus for students. St. Vincent’s is also close enough to the college’s downtown campus for students to walk there.

The next step in serving the school’s hungry students is on the horizon. The university’s Neighborhood Life department recently won a $55,000 grant; a campus pantry is scheduled to open at UAlbany this fall.

At SUNY Plattsburgh in upstate New York, the UUP chapter hosts food drives three to four times a year at its union gatherings to support a campus pantry set up about four years ago. Students and the community also donate food through food drives.

Recently, Plattsburgh college librarians and staff listened to a campus talk about how the number of students in need of food is growing. They banded together and collected money to purchase a freezer for the pantry, which was just delivered on Tuesday.

Students accessing help are very grateful, said Michele Carpentier, a SUNY Plattsburgh UUP member and assistant vice president for student affairs. The pantry is located with discreet access in Student Support Services so students will not be embarrassed. It’s also stocked with personal care products.

“Particularly the feminine products — we have girls who can’t afford them,” Carpentier said.

At Monroe Community College in western New York, a 2016 study from the Wisconsin HOPE Lab reported more than half of MCC students either skipped a meal or ate less because that’s all they could afford. The study also said one in 10 of the college’s students was on the verge of homelessness.

Last month, the Wegman’s Charitable Family Foundation donated $3 million to MCC Foundation for food scholarships, emergency grants and other types of student support.

Meanwhile, CUNY reported food pantries, or services that provided food, at 18 of its 20 campuses in 2018.

Sarah Smith, assistant professor of public health and a UUP member at SUNY Old Westbury, said faculty and staff tapped their colleagues at nearby Nassau Community College for guidance in setting up a food pantry. NCC already had one established.

The Old Westbury pantry gets much of its food from Island Harvest, a regional distribution food pantry supplier. Student groups, faculty and staff also hold food drives.

“There are a lot of staff that use the food pantry,” said Bonnie Eannone of Old Westbury. “There’s a stigmatization of food inequity that is still tough, especially for faculty.”