-By Gary Frank-
Alpha Eta Chi, the local chapter of Phi Theta Kappa, has put in place the Hunger-Free Campus initiative to address the issue of food insecurities among students at Passaic County Community College. As part of this program, the Food For Thought initiative created a food pantry that offers students healthy and nutritious meals. When the pandemic hit, the original program was put on hold and PTK introduced the On-The-Go Student Meal Pickup program where meals are prepared by the Panther Café staff and distributed to students. As of April 20, 2021, 6,500 meals had been delivered.
The roots of the program began in 2018 when it was discovered that 42% of college students nationally said they had food issues. It was obvious there was a need to act. From the research, the Middle States Regional Services Initiative, or MSR Feeds, was created to look into ways of getting food to students who needed it.
In 2019 the Student Hunger Survey was given at the college, and it was found that 48% of respondents had experienced food insecurities in the previous 30 days. Only 23% of students took advantage of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program – SNAP – benefits. PTK Co-Advisor and Food for Thought Program Coordinator, Andy Perales stated, “This data was the impetus that launched our program.”
Beginning with a competitive food drive, collecting 1,400 food items, the chapter worked with the PCCC Foundation, writing a grant to support their initiative. They received $10,000 to purchase vending machines and other equipment they needed to support the project. The Chapter also purchased a secondary stock from a PCCC approved vendor and allocated the remaining funds to purchase 400 five dollar food vouchers to disseminate to those who registered to the program. Two vending machines were set up, and during the fall 2019 semester, 213 students signed up to be a part of the program. The Food for Thought On-The-Go food pantry contributed over 2,200 food items to PCCC students and staff.
When the pandemic began, providing food to students using vending machines paused. A new plan was needed, and in collaboration with Chef Michael Grossi from Panther Cafe, Lia Travers, the coordinator from the Office of Student Advocacy, and Vice President of Finances Steve Hardy, the Food For Thought-On The Go Student Meal Pickup program was launched. This program offers students five freshly cooked frozen meals and produce weekly.
In the fall of 2020, the program was able to serve 203 registered students, with 20 student volunteers completing 764 service hours and distributing 5,560 meals.
So far, in the spring 2021 semester, the program has served 212 participants with 26 volunteers putting in 380 service hours and, to date, serving 6,500 meals. The program will run throughout the summer months and into the fall.
Continuing the program, advisor Jennifer Gasparino, along with Vice President of Advancement of Work-Force Development, Todd Silverberg, and Dean of Students, Dr. Sharon Goldstein created the Hunger-Free Campus Grant Program, with the hope of receiving $100,000 over 2 years to sustain their efforts. The two goals of the grant are to eliminate food insecurities as a barrier to student success and to look to sustain initiatives beyond grant funding.
In order to eliminate food insecurities, they hope to make students aware of the College’s Hunger-Free campus initiative by increasing the number of students who receive SNAP benefits, along with having access to healthy food / food vouchers. Workshops and seminars on nutrition and wellness based healthy lifestyles will be offered, and hunger-free services extended to include all PCCC campus locations.
Activities such as a community resource fair, a PCCC wellness fair, interactive student panels discussing issues of hunger and homelessness, and a PCCC CARES community quilt to bring awareness to campus hunger and raise funds to combat food insecurity are planned.
The SNAP program is a large part of the initiative. Eighty seven SNAP merchants have been identified within a one-mile radius of the campus, and a list of local merchants near all campuses is available so students know where to use their benefits. The college promotes awareness of SNAP through social media and email, as well as outreach through the Office of Student Activities and the PTK Center for Leadership Excellence. The Office of Student Advocacy is available to assist students with eligibility screening and applying for SNAP benefits.
As the Meal Pick Up program proved successful at the main campus, Chef Mike and co-advisor Perales, are working with Lisa Jones, assistant director and coordinator of Student Services, to expand the program to include the Wanaque Academic Center. Then, working with Patricia Medeiros, enrollment services coordinator, they’ll bring the program to the Passaic Academic Center.
Their second goal is to sustain food insecurity initiatives beyond grant funding. This will be accomplished by having financial resources in place to sustain / expand campus-based Hunger free grant-funded activities. In order to do this, they will conduct a Swipe Out Hunger Campaign using funds from the campus vending machine operations and the PCCC Foundation.
Next, they will team with student groups to solicit food donations and stock vending machines. Lastly, they’ll provide students access to healthy foods by partnering with local SNAP retailers and refer them to local SNAP merchants. There will be activities such as cooking demonstrations, budgeting and financial planning workshops, and a Hunger-free food box competition.
In December of 2020, Alpha Eta Chi’s Honors in Action committee hosted the Passing The Plate Conference: Serving Cooking and Nutrition Resources for the Next Generation. The program was designed to help remove the stigma of receiving SNAP benefits, as well as offering a cooking show, discuss the history of cooking, as well as how to apply for SNAP benefits.
To enhance the college’s Hunger-free campus program, the PTK chapter partnered with the Passaic County Food Policy Council and Swipe Out Hunger, a nationwide non-profit organization working to wipe out hunger on college campuses. They are also working with the Student Government Association, the Education Opportunity Fund and the Men of Color Success Initiative to achieve each goal.
As the spring 2021 semester winds down, the time to end food insecurities on campus is now, and thanks to Alpha Eta Chi, wiping out hunger has become a reality.