New York Community Colleges Fight Food Insecurity

While lawmakers in Albany are talking about the cost of college tuition, some students in New York City don’t have enough money to buy their next meal. A recent study shows that last year, two out of three community college students experienced food insecurity—from those who can’t afford to eat to those who are starving. New York City is trying a new way to get food to hungry students. Mike Elsen-Rooney reports, community colleges are opening food pantries to help curb the problem.

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Elsen-Rooney: Idritza Ramos was struggling to cobble together enough food for her and her son Adrian every month, even with the help of food stamps. The 33-year-old Dominican immigrant was trying to focus on her classes at Hostos Community College, where she was studying to be a Spanish teacher. Worrying about food made that harder to do. But then she found a lifeline.
 
Ramos: They always have food every week. They sometimes have oil, cornflakes, chicken. It helps me at home, you know, I don’t have to buy those things.
 
Elsen-Rooney: What she found was the Hostos food pantry. It’s one of many that have cropped up at community colleges in New York City over the past seven years. Back in 2010, the CUNY schools started getting reports that more students than usual were showing up to events with free food. That wouldn’t have been a problem on its face – college students love their free food. But they worried it might point to a larger issue. A group of professors led by Nicholas Freudenberg launched the first citywide study of food insecurity in community colleges, and made a surprising discovery.
 
Freudenberg: Something like 40 percent of students met some part of the US Department of Agriculture definition of food insecurity, and we were shocked and upset by that finding.
 
Elsen-Rooney: Since that study, a lot has changed. Policies at the federal and city levels made SNAP, or food stamps, easier to access. And all the CUNY schools opened offices specifically to address basic needs, like food, housing, and healthcare. They’re the ones who run the food pantries. But Freudenberg says there’s still work to be done. Not enough students know about the food pantries, and the cost of living keeps rising. 15 percent of community college students in New York still experience the most severe form of food insecurity; physical hunger.
 
Freudenburg: The fact that in the richest city in the world, 15 percent of the students who are, in some ways, the success stories of New York, people who’ve made it through adversity, poverty, racism, immigration to enroll in university, are still hungry, still don’t have enough food: an indictment of our city and country.
 
Elsen-Rooney: The burden is especially heavy on community colleges. A recent study from Stanford University showed that the CUNY system has lifted more students into the middle class than all of the Ivies combined. That’s due, in part, to the sheer number of low-income students community colleges enroll.
 
Freudenberg: If we want higher education to be the pathway it has been over the last century into the middle class, then we need to admit students from the lower end of the economic spectrum, and we need to support them to get through and get their degrees.
 
Elsen-Rooney: Hostos student Idritza Ramos is a case study in how community colleges can help low-income students into the middle class. She arrived in New York in 2001 from the Dominican Republic. She wasn’t eligible for public benefits like food stamps or federal financial aid. She eventually earned her citizenship and got food stamps, but she found the monthly allotment didn’t last.
 
Ramos: So sometimes at the end of the month, I don’t have money to buy food, so I have to wait until I receive the food stamps. All my family live in the Dominican Republic so I don’t have nowhere I can go and eat, or bring my son with me and eat. Just wait or, you know, try to manage the food little by little.
 
Elsen-Rooney: The food pantry that started as a lifeline ended as a job. Ramos got a work study position there, and focused on spreading the word to single mothers like her. Last December she graduated with an associate’s degree, and transferred to City College of New York, where she is studying Spanish Literature. Ramos is hoping to be a college professor. She knows education is still the best shot at upward mobility, as long as she’s not worrying about where to find her next meal.
 
Mike Elsen-Rooney, Columbia Radio News.

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