School lunch: BMCC pantry helps food-insecure students keep their mind on studies

In the new BMCC Panther Pantry, from left, Deborah Harte, director of Single Stop; Marva Craig, vice president of student affairs; Karrin Wilks, provost and senior vice president; and BMCC President Antonio Pérez.
Photo by Louis Chan

BY LAURA HANRAHAN

Tucked away inside Borough of Manhattan Community College’s Single Stop — an on-campus student resource center — there is a small room that is having a big impact on students’ lives. The Panther Pantry, a new initiative from the Single Stop office, at 199 Chambers St., is providing students who experience food insecurities with essential grocery items.

Launched in April, the pantry itself is small in size, but is pristinely stocked from floor to ceiling with boxes of pasta, beans, canned fruits and vegetables, cereal, tins of tuna and chicken, and milk and milk alternatives.

“Students come and we sit with them,” said Deborah Harte, director of Single Stop. “We have on a sheet of paper all of the items that are in the pantry, so students have a choice. You can escort us to the pantry and actually see the things, or you can check it off in the office and we’ll go pack a bag for you.”

Dr. Marva Craig, BMCC vice president of student affairs, said the need for a program of this nature was extremely apparent. In recent years, BMCC has assisted more than 600 students with food insecurities, either by helping to apply for New York State’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) or giving them gift cards to local supermarkets, provided by the school’s emergency fund. For many students, coming from a public high school — where meals are often provided for food-insecure students — to a college campus where they are left to fend for themselves, can be a shock.

“When they leave the high school and they come to us, we’ve decided we don’t handle food insecurities, which is irresponsible because we know it has to do with retention and graduation,” Criag said.

Harte added they hope to be able to impact the students’ lives beyond a temporary food fix.

“Our goal is not only to address the immediate hunger issue,” she said. “We also want to be sure we’re helping the students to devise a more sustainable plan. So that the pantry is used on an emergency basis, as opposed to something that’s regular every month. Sometimes it’s unemployment that put them in the situation, so we put them in the career development department.”

Surprisingly, the one item in the pantry that has been largely passed over is generally a staple of every college student’s diet — peanut butter.

“It’s a great source of protein, but the manner in which we pack the bags, which is according to the USDA ‘balanced bag,’ you can only have one peanut butter as protein, as opposed to two or three other protein items,” Craig noted.

Craig and Harte are still working out the kinks of this new venture and plan to revisit the way the foods are categorized, so that they will be the most beneficial to students. One aspect of the program they will continue with is asking each student how large his or her household is, and allocating food based on that number.

“A mother may come but it’s not the mother alone who’s hungry in the household,” Craig said. “One student may be walking out with two bags and one may be walking out with a half-bag because of the household.”

A focal point when creating the Panther Pantry was to reduce the stigma that is so often associated with having to stand in line at a public food bank.

“We enjoy food, we love food, but when we’re in need of food, it’s not a comforting feeling,” Craig said. “There is no pride in not being able to afford it. So what we’ve done is we’ve brought everything to the college campus where there’s no stigma.”

For Mia, a recently graduated theater student, the pantry not only helped provide her with food, but taught her how to prepare meals with higher nutritional value.

“I’ve struggled with the fact I could either pay for my tuition or eat,” she said. “I would do this trick where I would just have water and bread. Having the pantry, I’ve now learned how to make food that could last for three or four days.”

For Mia, this is the first food pantry she has felt comfortable enough to take advantage of, having often been discouraged by the long lines at pubic food banks. Now, she said, she often recommends the pantry to other students at BMCC

“Sometimes they get scared,” she said, “but I’m like, the one thing that you have there is privacy and they’re not going to judge you.”

For Panagiota, an early-childhood education student, the pantry helped her through a recent financial emergency. When she unexpectedly had to move, and put down a deposit and rent on a new apartment, she found herself with little money left over for food.

“It became a very tight budget,” she said. “Obviously, the food pantry didn’t cover my whole month but it gave me my breakfast. It gave me juice for a week. It gave me pasta and some vegetables I could use. So it gave me a little bit of room not to worry about ‘am I getting some food?’”

Craig hopes to eventually expand the Panther Pantry to incorporate other areas of the Lower Manhattan college, citing the nutrition department as one example, as well as neighborhood stores like Whole Foods, Pret-A-Manger and Target. For now, they are focused on setting up a donation website to keep the program growing.

The pantry is open for BMCC students Monday to Friday, from 9 am to 5:30 pm. Students can find out more information at http://www.bmcc.cuny.edu.

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One Response to School lunch: BMCC pantry helps food-insecure students keep their mind on studies

  1. This is an unbelievably awesome service BMCC is offering. Not just providing for those students in need, but more importantly, doing it with dignity. We could all learn from this lead.

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