Food Insecurity Threatens All CUNY Students, Experts Say

Hunter College’s on-campus Purple Apron food pantry shut its doors in March, exactly at when the need for emergency funding and food skyrocketed, said Director of Student Life Miesha Smith.

Even before the pandemic, food insecurity was one of the most pressing issues faced by New Yorkers. Now, with school closures, unemployment and rising coronavirus cases, it has only become worse, according to panelists at “Food Insecurity During the COVID-19 Pandemic.” But at Hunter, with food pantry resources in flux, students might have a harder time getting food on their tables while learning off campus.

One panelist at the Roosevelt House event, Kate MacKenzie from the Mayor’s Office of Food Policy, said her office’s mission is for no New Yorker to experience hunger. Right now, 1 in 6 people in New York experience hunger and only 1 in 4 will turn to a food pantry. Data from City Harvest shows that the number of New Yorkers struggling to feed themselves is up 38% compared to pre-COVID figures.

Photo courtesy of Hunter College

Even before the pandemic, 36,000 CUNY students were food insecure, according to research from panelist Vanessa Fuentes. A Hunter political science and public policy student, her senior thesis explores the link between CUNY students and food insecurity. Anyone without consistent and reliable access to an affordable and nutritious food supply can be considered food insecure.

“When you don’t have enough food to eat, you really can’t concentrate on academics or work if you’re working,” Fuentes said. Along with academic performance, food insecurity can impact attendance in students. These issues are further amplified when there are other financial burdens, like rent, on top of food.

Students struggling with food insecurity and hunger can find resources online from the NYC Food Policy Center, as listed on Hunter’s website. Still, Smith predicts that not nearly as many students in need are able to use this resource to feed themselves. Since the school’s food pantry went mobile, she said that approximately 800 students have been using this resource to put food on their tables. Smith said that even though the mobile food pantry will be suspending its services in the winter, there are hours available to visit the on campus food pantry that has recently reopened.

With recent budget cuts at CUNY, Smith said it is important for students and advocates to say that food security matters. Fuentes said that the university system needs to use more of its funding to help students impacted by this issue. Recently, City College and the Borough of Manhattan Community College have received charitable donations for students and local communities in need of food.

Meal delivery services and grab and go programs have been helpful for those in need since the start of the pandemic. But even after the coronavirus is under control, panelists hope to see these resources continue on. In the coming years, MacKenzie hopes that tackling food insecurity will be a priority for future government leaders.

“In a Biden administration, I do think we’re going to have the opportunity to think really big,” MacKenzie said. “Where else better to come up with some of those big ideas for piloting big and different ways of working than with the CUNY system?

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