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Food pantry for needy students opens at Nassau Community College

Nassau Community College has opened The NEST, a formal food pantry where anyone - but particularly those students who are so financially stressed that they can't afford meals - can have access to items such as pasta, tuna fish, milk and fresh vegetables. The NEST, or Nassau Empowerment and Support for Tomorrow, which opened for the fall 2015 semester, is a nonprofit organization founded by a committee of faculty, staff and students. Oct. 15, 2015.  (Credit: Newsday / Jeffrey Basinger)

For years, Nassau Community College professor Sharon Masrour routinely kept boxes of cereal and jars of peanut butter in the trunk of her car for the two or three students each semester who were so financially stretched they were skipping meals.

"We are the size of a small city. The students who come to us are in need. They don't come from money, and choose between putting food on the table and paying their tuition," said Masrour, a full-time reading and basic education professor at NCC since the fall of 2002. "We have students who are raising children, holding down jobs and still getting to class."

Now, for Masrour and other NCC professors who had similar experiences with their students, there is a solution: A campus food pantry has opened, the second in three years created on a Long Island campus to address food insecurity driven by economic need.

Some 250 food pantries have cropped up at colleges and universities across the nation during that time span, with many more signing on to a national alliance. Stony Brook University opened one in the basement of a dorm building in the fall of 2013 and has since given out 2,700 bags of food.

The NEST at NCC, or Nassau Empowerment and Support for Tomorrow, is a nonprofit organization founded by a committee of faculty, staff and students who have been advocating for the resource for two years. Masrour serves as the organization's executive director.

It is the first of its kind for the 24,000-student institution, the largest single-campus community college in the state university system.

With a formal pantry, anyone on the NCC campus can have access to a wide selection of nonperishable items such as pasta, tuna fish and beans. Thanks to a donated refrigerator, milk, fresh vegetables and Thanksgiving turkeys are available as well.

Those who come to the NEST at NCC are asked a few questions, including how many people in their household they're feeding. Eventually, organizers hope to expand beyond the 250-square-foot room on the south side of campus. They also hope to be a point of entry for students who may require other social services, such as housing.

Antonio DeBerry, 21, who is studying liberal arts, walks to and from the college's campus in Garden City from his Uniondale apartment to save on his transportation costs. He has a full class schedule and a work-study job that pays $9.75 an hour. He plays on the college's football team, too.

"You may only have $3 and you might want to stretch that out. The best way is to go to McDonald's. I try to eat healthy, but that costs money," said DeBerry, who is the first person in his family to attend college.

The food pantry has been "a blessing" a couple of times this semester when he was short on cash, he said.

"Every little bit helps and I really appreciate it. There are such nice people who are there," said Betty Almanzar, 22, of Elmont, who is studying early childhood education.

Almanzar attends NCC part time, so she qualifies for less financial aid. She had to cut back on her credit hours after her son, Lenin, was born 20 months ago. She works as a receptionist, making $15 per hour, and receives vouchers to buy books and a grant to pay for child care.

"I need to give him something better than I had," she said. "I saw my mother struggle and cry because she never made enough money, so I'm trying to make it all work. It's hard but definitely doable."

More than 40 percent of the student body at NCC receives some form of financial aid. About 1,100 students get the Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant intended for education expenses for the poorest students, NCC officials said. More than 1,200 students have reported living in a household that receives some public assistance, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and free or reduced price elementary school or high school lunch.

NEST at NCC's founders and others in higher education believe addressing some of the basic social needs of students in community colleges is key to boosting retention and completion rates.

Nate Smith-Tyge, director of Michigan State University's student food bank, said many of the organizations are student or faculty-led initiatives. He is co-founder of the College and University Food Bank Alliance, a national nonprofit that helps colleges start food banks and advises them during their operations.

"It's coast to coast, north to south, across sectors and across regions," Smith-Tyge said. "It's not just rising tuition, but the overall rise in the cost of attendance."

Campus demographics have changed too, he said, with a growing number of nontraditional students who are not 18 to 24 years old and straight out of high school. Many more are unable to rely on their parents' financial support, he said.

At Suffolk County Community College, where there has been an informal, word-of-mouth food pantry in operation on the Brentwood campus since 1978, the most recent population accessing it has been veterans, said Sister Mary Borrello, the pantry founder and professor of sociology and anthropology.

"We're in a poor community, so there's always been a need," said Borrello, who provided some advice to the NEST at NCC founders.

There is no definitive data on how campus food banks affect educational attainment. The University of Michigan-Dearborn is collecting data for a report that would probably be the first to track and analyze the campus movement, which has grown exponentially in the last two to three years, Smith-Tyge said.

According to local statistics collected as part of Feeding America's 2014 Hunger in America report, 9.7 percent of adults receiving food assistance on Long Island were full-time students and 6.8 percent were identified as part-time students. Feeding America is a national hunger-relief organization with a network of 200 food banks.

One-third of the respondents said they had to choose between paying for food and covering educational expenses in 2014, according to the report.

Free or reduced price lunch is available for students when they are in public elementary and secondary schools, but colleges generally do not have that program.

"When they graduate high school, it doesn't mean hunger goes away," said Randi Shubin Dresner, president and chief executive of Island Harvest Food Bank, based in Mineola, which provides some food and food safety training to the volunteers at NCC.

"If you are struggling to pay for your meals in college, it isn't something you are going to talk about," she said.

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