SUNY Cortland opens food pantry for students

Rachel Ditch, Protestant campus minister at the Interfaith Center, stands in the newly opened SUNY Cortland Cupboard (Peter Blanchard/Cortland Voice)

On Monday, November 6, 2017, SUNY Cortland opened a food pantry for its student population, a year to the day a student approached John Suarez, director of the SUNY Cortland Institute for Civic Engagement, conveying the need for resources for students who have gone or may go to bed hungry.

Out of 301 students who responded to a needs assessment survey sent out by the campus, nearly 40 percent of those students responded saying they went to bed hungry while attending college because they lack the finances to buy and/or make food. Thirty-one students responded that, at some point in their lives, had used a food pantry or visited a soup kitchen.

“It’s a misconception that all students come from a wealthy family. They’re coming from families who are trying to do their best, but sometimes can’t give enough,” said Lauren Herman, a health educator with the college’s health promotions office who serves on the board of directors for the campus food pantry. “Students work and do other things to provide for themselves, but it’s hard to focus so much on work, aside from your school work. We want this to be helpful for students, hopefully alleviating stressors, so they can then do well academically.”

“Food insecurity is a problem even for students who are employed, participate in a campus meal plan, or seek other financial or material help. In the largest study of food insecurity conducted to date, it was found that 56 percent of food insecure students reported having a paying job and 38 percent worked 20 hours or more per week,” according to a recent study.

The board of directors for the campus food pantry is a mix of SUNY Cortland faculty, staff, and students, including Laura Barnstead, a senior professional writing and political science double major, and Alexandra Cicero, a junior international studies and communications dual major. Both Barnstead and Cicero are working closely with the Institute of Civic Engagement and have been directly involved with the planning and promotion of the campus food pantry.

“Food insecurity is a universal issue. Sometimes we don’t see the struggles that people go through. We’re all interested in a healthy Cortland community, and this is one piece to that puzzle,” said Barnstead.

Cicero, acting as the lead student coordinator for the food pantry, detailed the ways in which the coalition recruited members, researched legal matters, organized funding, food donations, and fundraising to ensure the food pantry’s success.

“We still have a lot of work to do,” Cicero said. “But I’m proud of all the work that everyone has done for this cause.”

In order to get the project off the ground, the coalition needed capital to purchase shelving for the non-perishable food items that currently line its shelves. A $750 donation was gifted from the cabinet of SUNY Cortland President Erik BItterbaum to materialize the food pantry from concept to reality. The college’s Faculty Senate, Student Government Organization, Cortland College Foundation, and the Alumni Association have all given overwhelming support to bolster the coalition’s endeavor.

The opening of the food pantry last week was a soft launch, due in part as a deadline to actualize the pantry, but also because this week is National Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week. The board expects to have an official ribbon-cutting ceremony in the beginning of the 2018 spring semester, accompanied by a “Wellness Wednesday” event to showcase the food pantry. Community food drives are slated for next semester, as well.

“As a student, I’ve heard, first-hand, other students struggle with this, especially off-campus students. Taking on the extra finance of getting your food and also preparing your food can be a lot, so alleviating that stress would mean one less thing to worry about,” Melissa Lee, a senior Community Health major said. “Regardless if you have financial aid, there are so many things that that money needs to cover. Working on top of school work is a lot for any student.”

The food pantry is currently open from 12-1 p.m., Monday through Friday, in the basement of the Interfaith Center, an off-campus, non-denominational ministry, located at 7 Calvert St. The food pantry is currently accepting monetary donations. You can stop by in person at room 318 in BrockwayHall to make a cash, check, or credit card gift. You can also visit, and under “Designation,” select “Other” and type in “Campus Food Pantry.” Donations can also be made by phone by calling 607-753-5744.