Colleges need government help to tackle campus food insecurity

As Gov. Kathy Hochul and lawmakers in Albany negotiate another delayed budget, the focus remains on the thorny issues of bail bond reform and housing policy. But another crisis lurks in the shadows, one that will have disastrous effects across the state if not addressed in this year’s budget.

Every day, more New York City students are struggling to make ends meet and afford food. Low-income college students cannot be overlooked as a population in desperate need.

Even before the pandemic, college students in New York were struggling with basic-needs problems that forced many to abandon their higher education. According to institution-wide studies of both central systems, over 48 percent of CUNY students and over 40 percent of SUNY students were food insecure in 2019. With understaffed and understocked food supplies, coupled with the mounting wall of expenses students face — tuition and housing, health care and more — New York college students simply can’t afford to stay in school and thrive.

Fortunately, the solution is closer than it seems. New York can follow in the footsteps of more than seven other states, including New Jersey and Pennsylvania, in providing college funds for anti-hunger programs.

Former Gov. Andrew Cuomo ordered in 2018 that every public higher education institution “either provide physical food supplies on campus or allow students to obtain food through a separate arrangement free from stigma.” However, funding and support to make these pantries available to all students has been severely neglected. According to a 2019 study by the CUNY School of Public Health, out of nine CUNY food supplies, only one had a budget of over $1.70 per student — and three had a budget of less than 50 cents per student.

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SUNY Oneonta students are left with a few shelves of granola bars and cans of soup. SUNY Schenectady has seen a more than 300 percent increase in the number of students needing to use the pantry, but without funding, pantry staff are rummaging through trash cans and recycling bins to recycle the cans for cash. SUNY Buffalo, the largest public university in our state, funds its on-campus pantry through student activity fees and forces economically disadvantaged students to pay for its pantry. Until recently, CUNY City Tech had a mobile pantry that was only open for an hour two days a month, by appointment only via a broken online form. CUNY’s Hostos Community College struggled for more than two years without an on-campus cafeteria and a battered pantry to provide students with a measly one-time endowment scholarship.

Luckily, Albany has a tool in hand. Hochul and the Legislature may fund campus starvation programs in the final state budget. The congregation committed $1 million to expand anti-hunger programs on campus—a groundbreaking sum for dozens of campus pantries and tens of thousands of students.

With the final details finalized in this year’s budget, our leaders have a choice: They can choose to build a state where students are given the resources they need to thrive in and out of the classroom. Enabling our future leaders to enrich their lives by earning a degree prepares them and all of us for future economic and social success.

Sean Henry Miller is the Northeast Regional Director for Young Invincibles. Robb Friedlander is Swipe Out Hunger’s Advocacy Director.

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