SUNY Old Westbury President Timothy Sams speaks at a ceremony Wednesday...

SUNY Old Westbury President Timothy Sams speaks at a ceremony Wednesday unveiling the newly expanded food pantry at the new community care resource center. Credit: Rick Kopstein

An $878,057 federal grant to SUNY Old Westbury will help launch a new center to link students with food and other services to meet basic needs.

The grant will pay for two social workers, a database service to connect students with resources and services, a transportation fund, and wellness initiatives, all to be coordinated out of the new Panther Community Care Center. 

A ribbon-cutting ceremony Wednesday officially opened the newly expanded food pantry, which has moved from the Student Union to the new community care resource center located in the Campus Center.

The competitive grant, paid over three years, is from the U.S. Department of Education's Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education and was one of 38 awards totaling $30 million to help higher educational institutions create strategies to meet students' basic needs. 

"The whole idea of the [resource] center is to allow us to really see and support the student in a holistic fashion," said Cristina Notaro, assistant provost for student success. "Not just supporting the academics, but some of the challenges that are barriers to students completing their degree that are nonacademic."

President Timothy E. Sams said in a statement, “Earning a college degree for many students today requires more than the traditional financial and academic supports institutions are used to providing.”

Almost half the students at SUNY Old Westbury, primarily a commuter school with more than 4,200 students, are eligible for Pell Grants for low-income families.

Notaro said Old Westbury will use the federal funding to contract with Single Stop, a nonprofit that provides a database of government and community-based resources and the technology to connect to them. The new resource center will provide centralized access to services ranging from tax preparation to housing and child care. 

In addition, the center intends to develop mental, physical and social health initiatives, such as connecting students to the counseling center or "offering students people they could talk to [before] it gets to a crisis," she said.

The college said its largely volunteer-staffed food pantry opened in fall 2018. It helped more than 950 visitors last semester — more than double the prior semester — and is on track to serve an equal number this semester, Notaro said. 

Besides student-run food drives, the pantry is supplied by local food banks Island Harvest and LI Cares, and donations from local organizations such as the Sid Jacobson JCC and Stop & Shop. The supermarket chain just donated $7,500 in gift cards for food purchases.

"The pantry is stocked with canned and boxed staples but also bread, milk and vegetables," said Notaro, adding students also can sign up for SNAP benefits, known as food stamps, at the pantry. 

The grant is not renewable, she said, so sustainable funding will be necessary for the future.

While the pantry is operating, the rest of the services will be built up fully over the summer once staff is hired. When students return in the fall, the community care center "should be up and running," she said.

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