York College’s Food Pantry Tackles Hunger During a Pandemic

Photo By: Marco Verch | Flickr and Creative Commons https://foto.wuestenigel.com/help-and-donation-of-food/ https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

By  Shanae Harte

In an effort to combat food insecurity among students at CUNY, the university established food pantries to ensure that hunger never affects the university’s students and their families.

In 2018, after a study was conducted by the CUNY School of Public Health, it was found that one in every six CUNY students was food insecure. This realization stirred a desire in CUNY to provide for students facing food insecurities and thus, the food pantry at York College was born. 

According to the Director of the York College Men’s Center and Higher Education Assistant Jonathan Quash, when the decision to help food-insecure students was being made, the task was not difficult as the university had an established relationship with the Carrol and Milton Petrie Foundation.

The non-profit organization’s mission is to “expand opportunities for individuals and families from low-income and marginalized communities by providing technical and financial support to innovative nonprofit organizations and colleges in New York City.” The relationship between the organization and the university enabled the university to increase the support from the organization to create a food insecurity program at different CUNY campuses.

“We didn’t have a pantry program [at the time], but we did deal with food insecurities in a variety of ways,” said Quash. “We primarily were giving students vouchers for the cafeteria, so students were able to get food there but in reality, that is not the only time students are usually hungry- it is usually when they are at home.” 

With support from the Petrie Foundation, York College was then able to establish its food pantry which initially provided food to students in three phases. The first phase was the traditional pantry that provided ‘shelf-stable items’ for students to take to their homes. Secondly, there was a grab-and-go phase which, as the name suggests, allowed for students to grab a quick meal while they were on the go. The last phase was a continuation of the voucher program that allowed students to get a certain amount of meals from the cafeteria.

Many studies have shown that food-insecure students are less likely to complete their educational journey, or have a difficult time doing so, as these students are bound to be more focused on their state of hunger than their studies. For this reason, Quash believes it is vital to not just have a food pantry but ensure that students are being provided with balanced meals. 

Quash also highlighted the correlation between food insecurities and other social issues like housing insecurities, financial struggles, or event-based, like a pandemic.

“When a student is hungry, they can barely worry about studies or anything else- you just want to focus on getting something to eat,” said Quash. “There are all kinds of reasons why food insecurities exist but the goal for us is to help students manage it.” 

In terms of funding and grants, the college’s pantry is dependent on the Petrie Foundation but also receives donations from smaller organizations. Where food materials are concerned, the majority is donated by the Food Bank of New York City as the college is a member agency with the food bank. The pantry also receives food material from GrowNYC which provides fresh produce, and Staples where smaller snacks are bought wholesale. 

Quash explained that many of the wholesale products are bought to especially aid students that may not have access to cooking resources in their homes.

“If a student doesn’t have the ability to cook food, they have the option to just open the top of the products and add hot water- that way they can have something like oatmeal or mac and cheese,” said Quash. “And we have students like that who live in places where they don’t have access to cooking [material], so they can only use things they can essentially eat [without the cooking process] and that’s why we buy from that type of vendor.”

Because of the pandemic, the pantry can only operate using the first of its three phases. Student interns  who work alongside Quash help him determine the students that are in the need of the pantry’s help. These interns deal directly with the pantry’s website that allows for students to fill out order forms and make reservations to retrieve food packages.

Once reservations have been made, Quash double checks them and then delivers the packages to the different households. While many students prefer to retrieve their packages from the campus, in the case that they are unable to, they are provided with locations and food pantries closer to their homes so help is more convenient for the students.

Quash’s hope is that once students return to campus, the grab-and-go phase can once again be implemented so that students can have the opportunity to have a sandwich or a snack at any moment that they may need it.

“I’d want them to be able to just have something for the day but this [phase] will also help us connect with students and discuss larger issues,” said Quash. “What we try to do when they take a sandwich is talk to them about the pantry and about things they could take home later.”

Though the food pantry is set up to aid students, some students stay away from the pantry for the sake of pride or the stigma they believe may be associated with them once they use the food pantry’s resources. Some studies show that this is the case with frequent visitors to food banks or pantries.

Quash recalled one instance where a student admitted to him that he was hesitant to request help from the pantry, but could no longer resist the help as his situation became dire. 

“I had a student come to me in December- he emailed me on the food pantry email. And he said, ‘I can’t do it anymore, I give in. I tried to hold out as long as I could, but I need help.’,” said Quash.

Quash’s response to the cry for help was a simple “no problem” and he provided the student with a list of the items that were being offered. The appreciative student was then able to request desired items and receive the necessary food package.

“There is a tremendous amount of humility involved in admitting that you need help,” said Quash. “You’re a student and you’re fighting with college and you want to prove you can make it, ‘cause no one’s helping you. But at the end of the day, you’ve gotta turn around and say, ‘Hey man, can you help me?’,” said Quash.

To any other student who may be feeling the way this student did, Quash, and all volunteers at the food pantry understand that asking for help may be hard, but they all implore you to get all the help you need.

“Being hungry is nothing to be ashamed of,” said Quash. “York is your home, and where do you go when you need something? You go home. Don’t be afraid to come back home,” said.

*The food pantry at York College is available to all CUNY students.

**For updates on the food pantry, visit https://www.york.cuny.edu/student-development/food-pantry-program

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