When you hear about problems on college campuses, you tend to think of binge drinking, budget cuts or fraternity hazing.
But one of the biggest problems these days is hunger.
A growing population of college students is struggling to make ends meet, unable to make tuition payments and pay for meals. There’s no comprehensive data available, but a City University of New York survey found that “39 percent [of students] had either gone hungry for lack of money, skipped meals, or been unable to afford balanced meals” in 2009.
In order to help its students through the struggle, Onondaga Community College has joined a number of colleges nationwide in starting a food pantry.
“Hundreds of students have come in to take advantage of the pantry,” said pantry coordinator Jerry Farnett, who teaches English at the college. “We have students who come in regularly because their need is constant, and we have students who come in sporadically because their need is sporadic. There are students I see every week.”
The pantry got its start five years ago as a bookshelf with some canned goods and soups in Farnett’s office in the English department.
“Students were coming to me and asking for money because they were hungry. And for a lot of us, of course, we say, ‘Oh, my God, of course, here.’ But eventually, you say, ‘I can’t keep doing this or I’ll be broke,’” Farnett said. “I just had an empty bookshelf, so I put some ramen noodles and some soup and some mac and cheese on it, and with the spirit that exists here, people started saying, ‘Oh, what are you doing?’ And I told them, and they brought in stuff, and it’s just grown from there. It’s been five years. It started with one little thing in my area and it’s expanded.”
Now, the pantry has five locations across campus: one in Farnett’s office in Mawhinney Hall; one in the Career Center at Ferrante 262; one in the Office of International Student Services; one in the Academic Computing Center; and one in Gordon in the Educational Opportunity Program office.
Students are informed of the pantry through their campus email, announcements on monitors throughout campus and, mostly, word of mouth.
“It’s announced in their classes, and they find out through talking to each other. The amount of care they show each other is really amazing. They find out their fellow students are in need and they tell each other about it,” Farnett said. He acknowledged that word of mouth was the best route, largely because email and the campus monitors didn’t always reach the target population. “What might be a glitch in our system is that it does require someone to be paying attention. Some students never check their campus email. Some are oblivious to what’s on the monitors. But it’s there if you’re looking for it. We try to be what I call politely intrusive. It’s constantly there.”
Donations for the pantry are largely provided by faculty and staff.
“When new faculty members are hired, there’s a mentoring process. I met with five or so of them that said they wanted to take on a project, and that project was a food drive. It was amazing,” Farnett said. “The generosity of people on campus warms the heart.”
However, some outside agencies do help fill its shelves.
“St. Michael’s/St. Peter’s Church [in Onondaga Hill] and other outside agencies hold drives for us, too,” Farnett said. “We get a monthly donation from the Interfaith Council of Churches. They have a food bank of their own, and they send a truckload down each month. That’s distributed to all five locations.”
In addition, some of the beneficiaries of the food pantry pay back the kindness shown to them.
“Even seeing the students that might be frequent visitors of the pantry in my area, they don’t have much, but they’ll come in and say, ‘I had some extra cups and plates, so I brought them in,’” Farnett said. “I have a lounge space in my area and a microwave so they can heat up the food and eat it here. Seeing someone that doesn’t have much but is still willing to give, it’s amazing.”
The school also offers access to other services for students. Farnett runs a clothing pantry out of his office, and he and Lisa Simmons, assistant to the vice president of enrollment management, will conduct a coat drive in December. In conjunction with the Onondaga County Department of Social Services, the school aids students in applying for food stamps, and Daneen Brooks in the Disability Services Office has coordinated with DSS to have the Good Food truck to visit with fresh produce for purchase once a month. The school also has an emergency services fund that allows students to buy food under certain circumstances.
Farnett said all of the services are necessary in order to assure student achievement.
“Everything affects academics,” he said. “They’re here because they have dreams and goals. They can’t be at their best if they’re hungry. If they need bus fare and they don’t know how they’re getting home, they can’t focus in class. If they don’t have a winter coat and they’re cold, they can’t think about the test they’re about to take. If we can help eliminate some of that stress and help students in those areas where they might need a little help, we might make it easier for them to focus on their studies.”
For more information or to donate to the pantry at OCC, contact Farnett at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sarah Hall is the editor of the Eagle Star-Review and the Baldwinsville Messenger. The 2012 winner of the Syracuse Press Club's Selwyn Kershaw Professional Standards Award, she has been with Eagle Newspapers since 2006. She is a Liverpool native.