SUNY Ulster Food Pantry provides free groceries for needy students

In the Food Pantry at SUNY Ulster (left to right): SUNY Ulster student Doug Napoli, nursing student Melanie Booth, Vice President of Academic Affairs Dean Kevin R. Stoner, Dr. Catherine Kelly and the Reverend Robin L. James. (photo by Lauren Thomas)

According to a 2016 national study, 25 percent of community college students experience food insecurity. For those who are first-generation Americans, the percentage affected goes up to more than half. Attending a community college is often a crucial first step toward greater financial security for the poor and near-poor in this country, but it’s tough to concentrate on schoolwork and achieve academic success when you’re malnourished.

For this reason, the Campus Ministry Committee of the Episcopal Diocese of New York has set itself to the task of making staple foodstuffs available for free to college students in need. The latest milestone in this effort is the new SUNY Ulster Food Pantry, which had its official grand opening celebration on February 8.

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The brainchild of Reverend Robin L. James, pastor of St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in New Paltz, and Dr. Catherine T. Kelly, a former chair of SUNY Ulster’s nursing program who in her retirement has been an active member of the Campus Ministry Committee, the food pantry began last October in the form of a free food truck that parked in a campus parking lot once a week. The response was enthusiastic — not only from students, but from faculty and staff as well. SUNY Ulster vice president Kevin Stoner and coordinator of health Mary Tyler quickly found an indoor space to make available to the group, rent-free: a small suite of offices downstairs from the college cafeteria that had recently been vacated by the Student Government in favor of a more centrally located headquarters in the gymnasium.

By early November, the SUNY Ulster Food Pantry was ensconced in Room 155 of Vanderlyn Hall. It is open each Wednesday morning from 10 a.m. to 12 noon, with a table in the hallway displaying samples of what groceries are available that week. Users are invited to fill out an order form indicating which types of food, paper products and toiletries they need, after which a volunteer goes into the storeroom in back and loads up a grocery bag with the items selected. As of last week, 288 people had been provided with food by the new program, including other members of students’ households, according to Reverend James. “The most we had was 17 in one day,” she reports. “Seventy-five percent of those who visit have households of three to seven members. We’re feeding over 50 people a week.”

There is no means test to participate in the program; according to one student user, Douglas Napoli, “I just had to fill out a form with my name, e-mail address, residence and how many people I’m taking food for: my father, my brother and me.” Napoli, who wants to be a social studies teacher and will soon receive his AS degree in history and education, is a regular visitor to the food pantry, taking advantage of the new resource nearly every week.

The client base represents “a very diverse group,” says Melanie Booth, a nursing student who volunteers for the food pantry “faithfully every Wednesday.” She also helped conduct a survey of student needs at the beginning of the program, and coordinates the program’s Facebook page. “We see older people, younger people, single moms, people right out of high school.” “Agewise, there’s a very large range,” agrees Dr. Kelly. “In many cases, they have children — from babies to teenagers to young people still living at home. Many are working, attending school and raising a family.”

That means that disposable diapers, formula and baby wipes are among the items in highest demand, Booth says. Noting that “Some people don’t have access to hot water,” she adds that the food pantry also tries to keep cold-wash detergent in stock. The facility does not have access to refrigerated storage, so with the exception of bread donations from bakeries and supermarkets, the products available are non-perishable items like canned goods, pasta, rice, beans, paper and cleaning products.

Some of the food is donated in small quantities by students, and larger batches by grocery stores: “Emanuel’s in Stone Ridge has been awesome,” says Dr. Kelly. “They donated almost a thousand pounds of food.” But the bulk of the products are purchased, using grant funding from the Episcopal Diocese, from the Food Bank of the Hudson Valley, which is headquartered in Cornwall. The regional food bank also has a distribution center in Latham that makes biweekly deliveries of food to supermarket parking lots in Kingston and Highland, where local food banks and soup kitchens must go to pick them up. “It is a schlep — especially when you’re carrying 800 pounds of food!” Dr. Kelly admits.

For the future, the SUNY Ulster Food Pantry plans to expand its hours to two days per week and advertise its presence more widely, seeking more users, more volunteers and more donors. Availability of products for clients with special dietary needs, such as vegetarian and gluten-free foods, is expected to increase in proportion with demand. And according to Booth, “We’re hoping to do a diaper drive soon.”

Want to support the SUNY Ulster Food Pantry? Checks can be mailed to the Reverend Robin L. James, St. Andrews Episcopal Church, 163 Main Street, New Paltz, NY 12561. To arrange for pickup of a food donation or inquire about volunteer opportunities, e-mail sunyulsterfoodpantry@gmail.com. For additional information, visit www.facebook.com/thepantryatsunyulster.

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