Capital Region

On food pantries, local colleges beat Cuomo to mark

'We wanted to get ahead of the ball'
SCCC professor Alicia Richardson talks food insecurity while showing the pantry on campus for students and staff.
SCCC professor Alicia Richardson talks food insecurity while showing the pantry on campus for students and staff.

Categories: News, Schenectady County

Editor’s note: This article was updated at 1:55 p.m. Jan. 8 to clarify who would benefit from an April race.

In fall 2016, SCCC students started to see carts of food staples in the school’s hallways with a clear message: Take what you need, and go.

Schenectady County Community College professors had started making the food available to any students who were hungry, after seeing a need.

“It took off really quickly,” said Alicia Richardson.

Richardson recalled a class in which she mentioned the carts of food, and a student asked if she go right that moment.

“It reminded me that we have students sitting in our classrooms all the time who are hungry, and they don’t always know how to express it,” Richardson said.

School staff started to look for ways to turn the carts into something more permanent. The school’s academic senate donated funds to stock a pantry, and teachers organized a “Cans for Cookies” food drive to help build the starting supply.

By January 2017, the college had opened a student food pantry. Starting in an office across the hall from the president’s suite, the pantry eventually moved to a large, more discreet, unused space.

Faculty and staff volunteer their time to run the pantry, helping to stock the room and to assist students as they come through the pantry doors. The pantry is now a partner with the Regional Food Bank, receiving a discounted rate to buy food in bulk — financial contributions to the pantry can buy many times the amount of food a donor could buy at a grocery store.

The pantry is stocked with shelf-stable milk, juices and a variety of other staples, as well as non-SNAP-eligible necessities like hygiene products and school supplies.

“We see it as an access issue, and we see it as going to students and providing them what they need to succeed,” said Aaron Tolbert, interim liberal arts dean.

In the past year, the pantry has served 178 students through approximately 400 visits, Tolbert said.

“They have kids and they have families,” Richardson said of some of the students who use the pantry. “When they are struggling to feed their families and have to make choices about buying books or food, this really helps.”

Last month, as Gov. Andrew Cuomo rolled out policy proposals ahead of his State of the State speech, he called for the establishment of food pantries dedicated to students on all state colleges and universities.

About the same time SCCC was setting up its on-campus food pantry, staff at the University at Albany were establishing a partnership with the nearby St. Vincent de Paul food pantry on Madison Avenue to direct students in need to that provider.

“It seemed like they were best equipped to meet the needs of our students,” said Greta Petry, a writer in the school’s communications office who has been involved in the food pantry partnership.

Luke Rumsey, chair of the school’s food insecurity committee, said the school was responding to national studies that suggest many college students need more access to food.

“We wanted to get ahead of the ball and make sure we were addressing those concerns,” Rumsey said. “Our student population is a microcosm of society… if we have students who are food-insecure we want to be able to address that.”

St. Vincent de Paul representatives had three requests for the college: Volunteerism from student and university staff; fund-raise for the pantry; and organize regular food donations to the pantry. The college ramped up communication with students about access to the nearby pantry, adding information to orientation programs, passing out fliers and even putting pantry information on napkin holders at the college’s food court.

Last year, the partnership resulted in $3,000 raised by the college’s union of professors and another $3,000 from a hunger night event in the spring. A handful of student groups ran food drives to gather goods for the pantry. A race scheduled for April has a goal to raise $10,000, Petry said. That money would be split between the food pantry and the Regional Food Bank of Northeastern New York.

SUNY Cobleskill spokesman Jim Feldman said as a smaller, rural institution, that college is in the early stages on the issue. But SUNY Cobleskill has also started planning for a food pantry, he said.

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