If you’ve ever sat in a classroom or stood in front of one, you’ve felt it, maybe even heard it, that growling stomach that makes you start looking at the wall clock, or your watch, or these days, your cell phone, counting the minutes until you can grab some lunch or at least something out of the vending machines down the hall. Forget the lesson, a body’s gotta eat.
But for many, there is no lunch or spare change to kill the hunger and get the brains back on track. Right when getting a college education is increasingly necessary to build an economic future, increasing numbers of college students are reporting food insecurity, saying they don’t know where their next meal is coming from.
And this problem is widespread, including on Long Island. But Nassau Community College is finding a way to help feed its students.
A recent survey by the College and University Food Bank Alliance (CUFBA) with 400 members across the country, included 3,765 students in 12 states attending eight community colleges and 26 four-year colleges and universities. Among the findings were that 48 percent of respondents reported food insecurity in the previous 30 days, including 22 percent with very low levels of food security that qualify them as hungry. Twenty-five percent of community college students qualified as having very low food security and more than half of all first-generation students (56 percent) were food insecure.
Colleges across the country are taking action with on-campus food pantries. Nassau Community College—with upwards of 20,000 students—is putting the “community” in community college at The NEST, a food pantry which opened in September 2015 and now serves about 1,000 people (more than 230 “guests” as users are called, each representing—on average—a family of four). And The NEST is engaging the whole campus in the effort.
“It’s an awful and wonderful thing,” says NEST founder Professor Sharon Masrour of the Reading and Basic Education Department. “Awful because there is such a need, but wonderful that they are finding us.”
The guests include students like Maureen, a second year student who recently stopped in to pick up some items for her niece and nephew who live with her and her sister, a single mom. Maureen is working part-time as a Licensed Practical Nurse while she puts herself through school. Visits to The Nest keep the kids in peanut butter, juice packs, granola bars and canned tuna when things are tight. “I come for my family, to help out. It’s always good to have something on days when there is no real meal.”
Another student couple is stocking up for their family of six, which includes little children.
“We come once or twice a week,” they tell me. “It is so helpful because they have baby products. There are easy things to make, like macaroni and cheese and canned soups, because when you work and go to school, it’s hard to find time to cook a healthy meal. It’s helping us not have to take out more loans. Hopefully after we graduate we won’t have this problem.”
While the vast majority of NEST guests are students, faculty and staff also come. April Lambert, who has been office staff for 17 years and is a community outreach leader herself comes in from time to time when money is short. “I work every day, but sometimes with the bills, I can’t buy the food,” she says. “It started when once I needed a turkey for Thanksgiving. I saw something posted about The NEST and Sharon. I said, ‘I wonder if I could call her and ask her.’ I did and when she said ‘yes, honey, you can have whatever you want’ I started to cry.”
The NEST has other collateral blessings too. The entire campus community has embraced the project; while The NEST is an independent nonprofit entity, the college donates the space. Virtually every department has a collection box and takes charge of collections of high priority items for a week of each semester. The Sustainability and Nutrition Clubs created, printed and sold cookbooks to raise funds. The NCC Organic Garden donates fresh tomatoes and garlic in the growing season. Faculty, staff and students volunteer. On a recent visit, Michael Lei, a liberal arts student from China, told me this is his second semester of volunteering. He does inventory, stocks shelves, signs guests in and packs groceries. “It’s good, right? I’m helping people and I get to meet many people,” he says. “It also helps my language.”
And The NEST is growing. Currently in a relatively small converted office in South Hall, they are working with NCC to move to a much larger space in the basement of North Hall where they will be able to stock more and larger items and install more refrigerators to be able to offer more fresh food and other services. Relationships with Island Harvest and Long Island Cares are also part of the growth.
“We are currently looking for ways to fund the refurbishing of the space,” says Sharon Masrour. “It’s ginormous! And we are also looking for more ways to get the word out to people on campus so they know they can come and get food. We have such a high turnover of students in a two-year college that we have to keep letting everyone know.”