Student Aid

Student Aid

Roughly one of every seven Americans—44 million people—are going hungry some of the time, the nonprofit food assistance network Feeding America estimates. According to Best Colleges, college students are particularly hard-hit, with a food insecurity rate of 23 percent in 2020.

In a recent internal student survey conducted by CT State Community College Gateway—better known as Gateway Community College—76 out of 950 respondents reported that they had experienced periods of food insecurity during the previous six months. That may seem like a small percentage by comparison, but Dean of Student Affairs Alese Mulvihill points out that the survey represented only one-sixth of the Gateway student population—and that it was not anonymous. “We see underreporting because of the pride factor,” she says. “And people also may think, ‘I’m eating, even though it’s only three days out of the week.’”

Fortunately, Mulvihill has been on the case since her appointment as interim dean in spring 2019, when she saw “a lot of demand” for the Milford Food Pantry mobile van that visited Gateway once a month. “The van came on Thursday afternoons, when a lot of students were working. I started thinking, what if someone who needed the service couldn’t come to campus on that day? The push began to have something that was more accessible to everyone.” Using other established campus pantries as models—particularly those at Housatonic, Manchester and Norwalk community colleges—plans for an in-house site began in earnest that fall. Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

The virus slowed plans down, but four years later, the college’s Campus Cupboard has opened its doors, an event officially celebrated with a ribbon cutting and turkey dinner giveaway just before Thanksgiving. (Lucky winners of that lottery received not just a bird but also gravy, potatoes, their choice of two other fresh vegetables, fresh fruit, cornbread stuffing mix, cranberry sauce and pie.)

Invitees to the opening got an exclusive chance to tour the new space, set in a former classroom and heartily stocked for the occasion with shelves of canned and boxed staples including pastas, cereals, condiments, canned fruits and vegetables. Refrigerators offered plenty of fresh milk, juices and produce, while the freezer stored meats ranging from beef, ham and sausage to prepared chicken nuggets and cutlets. One end of the room features a snack bar where any student can grab a quick snack of oatmeal, ramen soup or a package of cookies on the go.

Any student who wishes to take advantage of the pantry may do so; no one is required to provide proof of need. “Everyone may encounter a situation causing food insecurity, so I don’t want to say that because someone appears to have a certain income, they’re ineligible,” Mulvihill says. “My hope is that when students who were in need and used the pantry feel able, they’ll pay it forward and provide us support.” Each beneficiary is limited to 10 items a month, which usually breaks down to five items from the refrigerators and freezer and five from the shelves. “However, we offer a lot of shelved items on a four-for-one basis, like the pastas.”

The project has taken a village, as a number of citizens, both internal and external, have stepped up. Federal funds provided for the purchasing of the pantry’s equipment; other financial support has come from the Gateway Community College Foundation and the graduating class of 2022, which donated a $10,000 gift. Current community partners include New Haven’s Loaves and Fishes and Stop & Shop, which makes gift cards available to students in need. In December, the pantry will bring in someone from AmeriCorps VISTA (“Volunteers in Service to America”), who is expected to forge further community connections and hire a larger daily operations staff—which, since the cupboard’s unofficial opening in September, has consisted of three volunteers: Gateway undergrad Daniel Paredes and educational assistants Melissa Lopez and Melsida Mardiyan. Plans are also in the works to develop an advisory committee of college and community partners and to collaborate with Gateway’s nutrition department to improve the health of the offerings.

Awareness of the pantry among the Gateway community has room to grow; Mulvihill estimates that roughly 70 students have made use of the Campus Cupboard for a total of more than 200 visits. She believes that once the pantry establishes routine hours—it’s now open by appointment and for walk-ins every weekday, though in fluctuating time periods—those numbers are sure to increase. “After our invited guests left the official opening,” she says, “there were three students in the hall who had seen all the hustle and bustle. One asked, ‘Is this all for us? Thank you, because I really wasn’t sure how I was going to get through this long weekend.’ Then another added, ‘I’m kind of couch surfing right now. If I can bring in some food for the household, they’ll let me stay through the holiday.’”

Ultimately, Mulvihill hopes the pantry will offer more than just food. “I’m trying to make it a place where students can gather information about other community resources, too. We want to give our students the kind of help that will make it possible for them to succeed here and not feel they have to ‘take a break’ from their education to survive.”

Written and photographed by Patricia Grandjean.

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