Origins: Norwalk Community College

The most common question we get from campuses looking to start up a pantry is “how did YOU get started?” We will be posting the ‘Origins’ series to share the tales of our member schools in their work supporting food insecure students.

Rachael Lederman DiPietro, CT Campus Compact AmeriCorps VISTA, Co-founder, Norwalk Community College

I didn’t even know what I didn’t know. That’s the best way to start off talking about the journey I’ve been on as the Connecticut Campus Compact AmeriCorps VISTA at Norwalk Community College tasked with starting a food pantry. I myself graduated from Norwalk Community College (NCC) in 2012, and so upon completing my Bachelor’s degree this past summer at Trinity College in Hartford, CT I felt a duty and obligation to be of service to the place that gave me a second chance at life. At NCC I learned about how to take initiative, how to advocate for myself, and the connection between engagement and academic success. So I owed them.

I started my VISTA service in July and truth be told, I knew non-academic barriers stood in the way of college persistence and success, both from my own experience and watching my classmates struggle, but I didn’t necessarily see the connection with food insecurity. That is until I started to google however. From approximately July to September I sat at my desk trying to absorb every piece of information (and there isn’t much out there) on food insecurity and college campuses. I was fortunate to have another VISTA in my cohort who had worked on a food pantry the previous year at another college campus in Connecticut. Erin gave me a tour of how the Three Rivers Community College food pantry worked, shared all the forms they used with me, and even graciously gave me the proposal they had used to college management to get approval on the project.

So that’s what I did from July until late September. I read. And then I read some more. There is really no data on food insecurity on our college campus and so I figured out ways to piece it together. I looked at data for participation and eligibility for free/reduced price breakfast and lunch programs for our feeder K-12 schools. Based on this data which showed around 48% of students were eligible for these programs it’s easy to see how these students lose this safety net upon graduating and their families are faced with expenses they have not previously incurred.

I then researched food insecurity as a general issue in our area. NCC is in Fairfield County, CT which is perceived to be incredibly wealthy. However, one in ten families in Fairfield County struggles with food insecurity, leaving them unsure where their next meal is coming from (FCCF, 2013). Almost one in five residents in Fairfield County cities live in poverty. Nationally, the average cost of a meal is $2.52, but this cost is $3.17 in Fairfield County. “Half of the food insecure people in Fairfield County do not qualify for federal aid” (Feeding America, Map the Meal Gap, 2011). Why does this matter? Because the discrepancy between the federal poverty threshold and the high cost of living in the area around NCC results in an unserved food insecure population.

All of this research, on the need for this on our campus was then tied to the growing research on food insecurity amongst college students. If you have not yet checked out Maya Maroto’s writings on the way in which the rates of food insecure community college students exceed the national average and that food insecurity amongst this population has a negative effect on student GPA, levels of energy, and concentration- DO IT! This all impacts ones persistence, retention, and academic success. Addressing food insecurity at NCC is directly related to our educational mission.

Space is one of the most political and precious commodities on campus and so the hardest part of the process was securing a space for the pantry. To do so we -myself, the Coordinator of Service Learning Courtney Anstett who is a co-founder of the pantry, and the Director of Adult Learning Kristina Testa-Buzzee under whom I serve- really had to justify the need for a pantry on campus. Knowing this was a growing movement on college campuses thanks to the network of CUFBA, armed with the facts I brought a proposal to the management of the college. The proposal was approved and then the fun really began.

Four years ago as a student at NCC I started an event called “Day of Thanks” (DOT). The idea behind this event was that rather than the 40 something clubs on campus all doing separate clothing/food/toiletry/toy drives it would be infinitely more impactful if we all worked together. A month long collection drive with all clubs participating in DOT was undertaken and culminated with a day of service and sorting. That first year almost 100 students helped us make PB&J sandwiches, sort through clothing, toys, and food to donate to local charities, and made fleece blankets for a shelter.

Building off DOT, which was now an annual event in its fourth year, we had a food focused collection drive. 2014’s Hunger Games Edition of DOT was a competition between 23 “districts” (made up of different departments and clubs on campus) to see who could collect the most non-perishable food items. Over 4,000 items were collected through the drive with our Medical Assistant Club winning the competition with a whopping 756 items. This event was held on November 13th and with the pantry not opening until late January, we gave away all holiday related items, along with items that would soon expire to local pantries. Everything else was held onto and this left us with a really strong start to the NCC Food Pantry.

The time between November 13th and our move-in date the third week of January was spent trying to figure out where to store everything in the meantime, how to advertise the service, what hours we should be open, how best to do intake and just generally what I had gotten myself into!

After having to reschedule several times due to snow the NCC food pantry had a ribbon cutting ceremony on February 11th, 2015. We’ve technically been open since February 3rd and in our first 11 days we have served 24 students.

Every day we are figuring it out a bit more and readjusting as needed. We still have a ton more work to do to get the word out and build a sustainability plan. However so far our volunteers have been amazing, our faculty and staff continue to stop by and ask us what we need, and our students are not only grateful, but truly feel like the school actually cares.

 

Quick hits of things that we’ve found to work (in our very humble and new opinion):

1)      Bi-monthly emails to faculty/staff asking for a specific donation- this week we requested oatmeal and cereal… because breakfast is the most important meal of the day

2)      We have Service Learning at NCC and the pantry is now listed as one of the sites where students can do service learning hours

3)      All of our forms (waiver, intake, recommendations) are through Google forms so no manual data entry has to occur

 

Originally published by Clare Cady March 3, 2015

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