Campus free-food pantries on the rise


NY Region

Food Pantries Grow on New York Campuses

Free Food Offered to Help Needy Students Stay in School

Oct. 9, 2014 2:15 p.m. ET

Lorn Grant (left) and Efrain Rivera, from the Food Bank For New York City, making a delivery to the Kingsborough Community College food pantry. Agaton Strom for The Wall Street Journal

Tucked on the fringes of Kingsborough Community College’s campus in Brooklyn’s Manhattan Beach, walled off from the corner of a computer lab, sits a small room about 10 feet square.

Inside isn’t the usual jumble of printers, monitors and cables.  Instead, the space houses neatly stacked food essentials—from tuna fish, pasta and peanut butter to juice, milk and canned fruits and vegetables.

The pantry offers free food to students attending classes at this large school—many of whom must make tough daily choices with meager resources.

“Being a student in need, it helps me get by,” said Helen Berger, 31 years old, who studies in Kingsborough’s mental-health program.  “If I do have cash, I have to make sure I stretch that dollar.”

Kingsborough’s pantry, which existed in a lesser form before becoming part of the Food Bank For New York City’s network in 2012, is one of a growing number of facilities aimed at addressing the quiet problem of hunger on campus.

Hattie Elmore, assistant coordinator of Kingsborough Community College’s Single Stop program, stocking the shelves at the school’s food pantry.

The City University of New York, which has operated food pantries at some of its community colleges in some form for the past few years, is working with the Food Bank to open 10 new ones this fiscal year at Medgar Evers College, John Jay College and other schools.

And the trend isn’t just urban.  Fifteen State University of New York schools have food pantries, including the Stony Brook campus on Long Island and the New Paltz campus in Ulster County.  Three more are working with local groups to open one before the end of the year, according to a SUNY spokesman.

Few people associate college students with hunger, said Margarette Purvis, the president and chief executive of the Food Bank For New York City.

“We make light of it, saying things like ‘I was hungry when I was in college, too!’ ” she said.  “No one is thinking about hunger that could derail you—that could actually result in you having to remove yourself from school.”

At Kingsborough, students can visit the pantry once weekly and take enough for three days of meals.  Between 250 and 700 people visit each month, depending on the semester, including some non-students from the neighborhood, said Heidi Lopez, director of Kingsborough’s Single Stop office, where students apply for public benefits and other free resources.  During the last calendar year, there were 21,654 visits to the pantry.

The most popular pantry item is cereal.  Ms. Lopez said she keeps bowls and spoons on hand for students who need to eat immediately.  There are many, she said.

While many CUNY students attend college tuition-free, the cost of living in the region breaks most budgets, said Frank Sanchez, CUNY’s vice chancellor for student affairs.

Pantries, which are funded mostly through grants and donations, help reduce out-of-pocket expenses so students can stay in school “instead of getting a second or third job or sometimes, dropping out of school, because they can’t make ends meet,” said Dr. Sanchez.

For Ms. Berger and her sister Zina, two Kingsborough students who live at home with their mother in Brooklyn, the pantry is a lifeline.  For nearly four years, they have gone to the pantry to get staple items they would otherwise buy weekly at the grocery store.

“I always grab some ingredients for my mom for when she cooks and she’s so grateful for them,” said Zina Berger, 25, a speech pathology student.

The model of on-campus food pantries is growing across the country.  Clare Cady, a co-founder of the College and University Food Bank Alliance, a national umbrella group, estimated there are some 150 to 200 campus pantries across the country.

Ms. Cady believes the number of pantries is multiplying because of growing awareness of the hunger problem.  Financial-aid packages have decreased and the number of unemployed people returning to school has risen, she said, so more pantries are needed now.  A 2014 survey conducted by the national hunger-relief group, Feeding America, found that a third of the families served through the Feeding America network of food banks make a choice between food and education.

Vivian Flowers stocking the shelves at the food pantry at Kingsborough Community College.

Plus, Ms. Cady added, “Families are not as supportive in sending children to school as they were even 10 years ago.”

At the suburban campus of Stony Brook University, the food pantry serves about 15 to 20 students every night it is open, officials said.

At New Paltz, what began as a closet in 2012 expanded this spring to become a part of a regional food bank, run by the Student Christian Center in the college’s student union building.  In the two years it has been open, Chaplain Dianna Smith said, she has seen a 500% increase in the number of students she serves.

Randi Shubin Dresner, the president and chief executive of Island Harvest, a Long Island-based food bank, said there is an effort afoot to work with the state’s food banks and SUNY colleges to open more campus pantries.

Last month, Ms. Dresner met with Carl McCall, chairman of the SUNY board of trustees, and other school leaders to discuss the issue of hunger on campus.

Mr. McCall said through his spokesman that SUNY is looking for ways to enhance the network of on- and off-campus pantries:  “We understand that in order to get the most out of their education, students must have their most basic needs met.”

Write to Melanie Grayce West at

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