SUNY Schools are Ensuring Students Stay Nourished and Healthy to Increase Success in College

A lack of regular access to food is an issue that plagues approximately half of today's college students. In addition to negatively affecting students' health, food insecurity, or the absence of food, impacts a student's ability to succeed academically and graduate. Recognizing that hunger should not be an obstacle for students to thrive academically, colleges and universities have long been at work developing the means to support students in need. With new efforts and partnerships on the rise, all 64 of SUNY's colleges and universities now have a food pantry or stigma-free food access available to their students as of December 2018.

Following the announcement of New York's "No Student Goes Hungry Program," which mandated that all SUNY and CUNY schools have a food pantry or stigma-free food access for students, SUNY launched a Food Insecurity Task Force, which is co-chaired by Dr. Anne Kress, President of Monroe Community College and Ms. Randi Shubin-Dresner, President and CEO of Island Harvest Food Bank, and coordinated by Dr. John Graham, Associate Provost for Student Affairs at SUNY System. Approved by SUNY’s Board of Trustees and backed by the full support of Chancellor Johnson, the task force was first discussed and created by SUNY’s Student Life Committee.

"Food insecurity continues to pose a formidable challenge across the United States and for many of our students, to the point of impacting their ability to achieve academic success. As the largest system of higher education, SUNY has resources in place and expertise to develop a sustainable food source program for our students," said Chancellor Johnson.

The task force is comprised of higher education leaders and students from across the university system, along with experts in the fields of diet and nutrition, campus food service, financial aid, food waste prevention, and nutritional research scientists, among others. The group focused on creating strategic partnerships, scaling best practices across the system, and building awareness for on-campus resources such as food pantries and food access alternatives.

"Student hunger and food insecurity has introduced a new set of circumstances that directly impact their persistence, retention, and degree completion," said Dr. Graham. "On close examination, we have learned in the past few years at SUNY that given the geographical diversity of our institutions and their mission, the challenge to effectively address student hunger is critical. Given that food insecurity is a complex issue with no one-size-fits-all solution, our 64 schools across the system provide services from traditional food pantries to community and government resources to educational opportunities to help our students overcome food insecurity."

A Variety of Resources at SUNY Schools

For instance, SUNY Cobleskill established a task force during fall 2017 to explore, recommend, and implement a program surrounding food insecurity on SUNY Cobleskill’s campus. In doing so, the task force determined that an on-campus food pantry was not the best way to address food insecurity on their campus. As a result, partnerships were forged with local pantries and the campus’ auxiliary services to provide meals to students facing food insecurity.

At Onondaga Community College, their Food Insecurity Task Force has been in place since 2013, which led to the campus establishing a centralized location for students to access food in 2014. Since then, with the help of the SUNY Community Schools grant, a program run by Governor Cuomo’s administration that provides comprehensive support services to students to increase college access and degree completion, Onondaga Community College has increased the offerings and hours of the food pantry and established a partnership with the Central New York Food Bank. Additionally, the campus has Food Link, which provides short-term food aid and connects students with community and government resources for long-term assistance.

Many of our other campuses also link students with beneficial resources. For example, Mohawk Valley Community College’s College Community Connection (C3) connects students to SNAP benefits, on-campus meals, other prepared meals, and basic needs supplies. At Adirondack Community College, their Community Hub offers free groceries and personal care items to all students in need. They have also recently expanded their on-campus efforts through their SUNY CARES initiative, which connects students with numerous resources, such as emergency funds, transportation assistance, and SNAP referrals. Finger Lakes Community College also provides SNAP-related assistance for its students through onsite education and service sessions from SNAP counselors.

In addition to connecting students with external nutrition assistance through SNAP, institutions like Cornell University are implementing innovative solutions to help their students gain access to food. Anabel’s Grocery is a student-led initiative to operate a grocery store on Cornell’s campus, which addresses food insecurity by providing access to healthy, affordable, and subsidized food. The grocery store also offers programming to address food literacy and nutritional education.

One component of food literacy is understanding what makes a nutritionally balanced meal. Stony Brook University’s pantry makes sure that each patron receives a bag with a fruit, vegetable, protein, and starch, and there are gluten-free, vegan, vegetarian, and food allergy sensitive bags available so that all patrons can take advantage of the pantry’s services. A future goal of the pantry is to provide cooking classes to further educate students. Fresh produce can also be acquired through the Stony Brook Medicine rooftop garden, which is available during the summer.

While making food pantries and other means of food security available to students is a necessary first step to combatting food insecurity, our campuses are constantly striving to improve their resources and implement evidence-based solutions. At SUNY Fredonia, they originally made non-perishable food available to students the last three weeks of the semester – a time when campus food service is limited – but a needs assessment reflected that students needed semester-long food assistance. Now, the campus has a website available exclusively to students, which allows them to access food at any point during the semester through a confidential email, and they have also partnered with a local food pantry for food deliveries.

Beyond taking advantage of on-campus resources and initiatives, partnerships are crucial to combating food insecurity as well. “Partnerships are mission critical. Campuses are working assiduously to address student hunger. However, their efforts are enhanced and will likely be sustained in the long-term through mutually beneficial partnerships. Many of our partners are supported by the State, and it makes perfect sense for us to work together for the greater good of our students and other State residents,” said Dr. Graham.” 

For some of our campuses, their ability to provide students with food relies on key community partnerships. The University at Albany began a formal relationship with the St. Vincent’s Food Pantry in 2016. In exchange for promoting the pantry as a resource for its students, UAlbany provides the pantry with volunteers as well as food donations and funds on an annual basis. The food is bagged by student volunteers at the pantry and delivered to campus for pick up. At Nassau Community College, they have a partnership with a local 7-11 that regularly donates warm food to the campus.

SUNY System Administration has also fostered partnerships through the Food Insecurity Task Force to better assist our campuses. Starting this spring semester, the New York State Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance (OTDA) will provide system-wide material distribution of information to students, help facilitate a campus pantry and SNAP awareness day, and provide ongoing SNAP food demonstrations at SUNY college pantries. OTDA will provide these services with the help of their internal partners, such as Nourish Your Neighbor and Hunger Solutions.

The assistance that Hunger Solutions, a New York-based organization, will provide support our campuses’ most vulnerable populations through education, community-based outreach, nutrition outreach and education programs, and federally funded nutrition assistance programs. In addition to working with organizations in New York, SUNY is also working with Council on Hunger and Food Policy which was created to establish a permanent focus on fighting hunger in the state. The next critical step of the Food insecurity Task Force in Spring Semester 2019 is the design and implementation of a SUNY led validation survey that will provide information and critical data points on the scale of food insecurity among our students across the system.

With the combined efforts of the SUNY Food Insecurity Task Force, Governor Cuomo’s "No Student Goes Hungry Program," and our campuses’ individual endeavors, we will ensure that no student in New York will have to leave school because of limited access to the food they need to succeed. As Chancellor Johnson aptly stated, “Food insecurity can affect anyone, including the students enrolled in our campuses.” All across SUNY, it is our mission to help students feel comfortable, empowered, and healthy during their time on our campuses working hard to earn a college degree.


Published January 2019