By Benjamin Ibarra
Jamaica, Queens has been labeled as a food swamp, according to a report from Public Health Solutions for New York City. The report noted the lack of access to healthy food options in the neighborhood, instead, it is filled with fast and junk food purveyors that outnumbered healthy food sources. The USDA defines a food swamp as an area with easy access to less beneficial, energy-dense foods, which may swamp out healthier choices.
According to the CUNY Hunter College Food Policy Center, Jamaica will maintain its ratio of 20 bodegas to 1 supermarket. The selection of unhealthy food is a common theme not just in the surrounding community but also here on campus.
“Despite ongoing efforts, the problem persists, underscoring the urgent need for comprehensive solutions to ensure that everyone has access to affordable, nutritious food,” said City Councilwoman Nantasha Williams of District 27. York College’s cafeteria has been shut down since 2019 after failing numerous health violations over several years. Pandora’s Box has reported in the past about students complaining about the cafeteria not offering healthy food and drink options.
Education Major, Uchechukwu Okonkwo said, “We eat every day outside of campus. There is no good food here except for sandwiches, I want some actual food instead of cold sandwiches.” Students can be seen in various parts of the campus indulging in fast food bought off campus. Besides the vending machines and the Starbucks Cafe, there are no other food options on campus. The shut rolling gate is a reminder that there was a cafeteria on campus once, however, most students don’t even recognize the entrance when passing because all they see is a dark room.
Back in October York College President Eanes said the cafeteria needed millions of dollars of renovations before anyone could come and be a vendor. The Queens Chronicle reported back in February that Eanes requested $500,00 in a budget meeting with Queens borough President Donavan Richards to replace the kitchen equipment, which is more than 25 years old, which she termed “beyond useless.”
York College has a yearly operational plan, and this year, goal four is to “offer healthy, sustainable food service on campus.” Director of Communications, Vivian Todini, provided the document to vendors addressing nutritional values and healthy foods to be served on campus. The Request for Proposal states York College Auxiliary Corporation’s objective is to “promote health and well-being by offering affordable foods and beverages that encourage the consumption of vegetables, fruit, whole grains, and minimally processed foods while minimizing the consumption of salt, added sugars, saturated fats, red meat, and artificial additives; ensures access to healthy food for college lowest income students; support NYC’s economy by sourcing from local and regional food producers, processors and distributors.”
These broad and vague health statements have no real merit or way of verifying execution. The proposal states contractors should bake as many items in-house as possible but the proposal also states “high-quality mixes, frozen par-baked and ready-to-bake items may be utilized.” It is unclear if the food vendor will use flour that qualifies as either unbleached, unbromated, organic, whole wheat, multi-grain, or made from non-bioengineered grain. There is no further information listed in the RFP document. It’s an open, vague food request for interpretation.
If the concern is to bring awareness of ingredients, the vending machines should be appropriately labeled with High-Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS) labels on beverages and snacks. The snack vending machine should also have a “bioengineered food” label. Only 16 percent of the products in snack vending machines have a NON-GMO label verifying the product has no bioengineered ingredients.
The Starbucks Cafe on campus also has a high selection of unhealthy foods vs. healthy and nutritious foods. The cafe beverage selection fares slightly better in providing beverages suited for different diets. The snack selection is riddled with highly processed food, passing off as a good choice for the health-conscious buyer. Mattaki Islam, an undeclared major, said he doesn’t eat on campus because he finds prices too high. “I wish they had food that was tailored to more religious backgrounds,” he said.
York College is in a procurement process and no more information can be provided. “The bidding and procurement process has standards and protocols that we follow not to jeopardize or affect the contract-awarding process,” said Todoni. “Once this process is complete, we can revisit interviews and share more information. As mentioned, we anticipate the process to be completed in March.”
York College has a food pantry open to students every two weeks. The food pantry initiative started in 2017 and CUNY has pantries on all 20 of its campuses. The York Food Pantry aims to provide 80 to 100 bags of fresh produce, all the produce is local and purchased through Grow NYC, which works with nearby farmers and is funded by the city and grants from various local foundations.
Nicole Acevedo, Student Life Specialist from York’s Women Center for Gender Justice, said, “Unfortunately, there are times we give away fresh produce at twelve-thirty, and we run out in 30 minutes, and we are unable to reach all the students. It is a disappointment because they will have to wait another week for the next round if they can make it.” Acevedo also pointed out that students come in groups encouraging each other. “The main goal is to create a culture of care around basic needs.”
Jamaica, Queens residents are trying to increase the importance of York College’s role in the community. Councilwoman Williams said the Jamaica Now Action Plan emphasizes increasing quality jobs and supporting small businesses, driving economic growth, and connecting residents to high-growth industries. The plan acknowledged the importance of strengthening York College’s role as an anchor. She added that the broader challenges faced by Black and Brown communities concerning various health determinants.
“The absence of nutritious food choices leaves community members with limited options, often forcing them to choose between unhealthy or even worse alternatives. Ensuring accessible healthy food is not just a matter of convenience but a fundamental requirement for fostering a truly healthy community.”
There are currently two bidders competing to be the food vendor on campus. Two tastings have been held so far for a small selection of faculty and staff. The number of students involved in the committee is unknown because of the procurement process. It was noted on York’s Operational Plan that “pizza, empanada, and meatball parms” were added to the Request for Proposals Food Service. The cafeteria is expected to open towards the end of spring 2024.