How one NY university opened 2 food pantries in a pandemic

New York Institute of Technology leaders, acting on a food insecurity crisis for students, took smart steps to launch their Grizzly Cupboards on Manhattan, Long Island sites
By: | October 22, 2020
Photo courtesy of the New York Institute of Technology

Tiffani Blake arrived at the New York Institute of Technology in July of 2019. One of the first concerns she started hearing from students was that some were hungry.

“So, they would go into their summer classes or summer jobs and eat breakfast and maybe not have another meal for the rest of the day,” says Blake, assistant provost for student engagement and development.

By that fall, the situation got worse.

“Some students were actually becoming ill,” she recalls. “They were feeling weak, not feeling like they could continue on with their day.”

So Blake and a large team of stakeholders formed a committee to look at food insecurity at NYIT. The talks led to the launch of the Grizzly Cupboard, a pair of food pantries on its Long Island and Manhattan campuses. After nearly a year of planning, they opened on Oct. 1.

The pivotal timing of that launch – at the start of the academic year and during the COVID-19 pandemic – coincided with a $10,000 donation in gift cards from supermarket chain Stop & Shop.

During the past few weeks, Blake and her volunteers have been procuring non-perishable items and stocking the shelves of those pantries. They’ve done outreach to students and put together information and resource lists to aid those in need. And they’ve started handing out bags of food – contact-free, of course.

“Having those quick conversations with students, that kind of turned my ear a little bit,” Blake says. “If they don’t have access to healthy food, they won’t have enough energy to get through the day or be able to focus. It directly impacts their academic progress. We needed to support our students a little more. When the pandemic hit, I thought, it’s going to explode even more. Students who may not have been impacted before will need to come to us for assistance.”

NYIT has approximately 9,000 students across its many campuses, though most are in New York and most live at home. They are not only reaching for help for themselves but for their families. Even those who live on campuses have expressed needs.

“We are a majority commuter campus, but we do have a small amount of resident students,” Blake says. “They have their meal plan, but it’s those extra things. They want food late at night. When the dining halls are closed, the diner is open, but that’s a $20 meal. They may not have that $20 to spend. And that’s where we come in. So now they’ll have some items in their halls that they can cook.”

The process to get a pantry going

Food pantries are not a novel concept. For nearly a decade, the issue of food insecurity has been spotlighted on college campuses. There are more than 700 pantries alone that are part of the College and University Food Bank Alliance and countless more that are not in the network. In New York, all public universities are required to have them. Though awareness of the cause has been slow to develop at some institutions, the pandemic has brought the crisis front and center at those that don’t.

Upon recognizing the need, the NYIT team led by Blake went to work. Although the stakeholders might be different, it’s a model that could work for any college or university.

  • She initially spoke to the provost and started a committee within Student Life. They conducted a survey of students and determined that hunger and lack of access to healthy food was real.
  • They then expanded the committee to include representatives from the financial aid and bursar’s offices.
  • They got support from the School of Management because of its tie-in with hospitality, along with its School of Health Professions, which could provide information about nutrition and proper wellbeing.
  • They tapped a representative of institutional research to assess the need of food for our students.
  • And they looked at what other colleges were doing that had food pantries, especially those in their area, such as Mercy College and the Borough of Manhattan Community College.

That communication between stakeholders led to a bit of an epiphany – a member of the bursar’s office suggested the potential of getting a supermarket like Stop & Shop on board to help out. After some discussions, the retailer came through.

“This is a good part of having a committee; everyone has great ideas,” Blake says. “She did the initial reach out to headquarters, and they contacted her back. And then from there, it kind of ran.”

Photo courtesy of New York Institute of Technology

What’s in the Cupboard?

The pantry does more than get food to students. It is part of a larger initiative called Bear Bytes that is addressing the “holistic wellbeing of students” through education programs.

According to Blake, the overall program provides a confidential and “stigma-free environment essential for students to reach their highest personal and academic potential.” Students complete an application. NYIT asks them if they want further information and directs them to website links that contain SNAP and housing resources. Students then fill out a request form for food that they can use once per week.

“A crucial part of the committee’s planning was to look at ways in which we could decrease or remove that stigma,” Blake says. “So a lot of our focuses have been on the healthy aspects of this project, saying, ‘come and get healthy food’, but also letting them know, this resource is here for you. There’s no reason to be embarrassed. Part of the application process, we’re doing a lot of personal touches. Once they submit an application, we send them an email, Our staff is also reaching out to the students personally. So that way, they feel a person behind that interaction.”

Though the pantry does not serve up perishable items yet – they don’t want food to go to waste during a pandemic – items are healthy, often with low sodium and low sugar. There are canned vegetables and fruit, beans, rice, cereals, condiments, peanut butter and jelly and even toiletries. The items are left outside the pantry in specially branded, reusable NYIT bags that are not identifiable as coming from the pantry.

Blake says the outpouring of support for the project has been amazing, especially from students volunteering to help or drive its success.

“The provost, the president, have been very supportive,” Blake says. “Everyone’s kind of helping to get the word out. When you think about student leadership, they’re all in; they want to be able to support their peers. These were students who were directing other students before the pantry existed to go to Student Life to help them with food or other resources. So this … this warms my heart. This is how we should be there for students, particularly if you want them to succeed here.”

As for the future of the pantry beyond this critical time, Blake says, “We’re going to continue this indefinitely. Right now, we are just be kind of quantifying everything. Probably a year from now, we will send a survey out to students who have used it or the general population, just to get a sense of what the need is. But right now, it takes minimal resources to stock it and run it. Even if we can help one student …”


Chris Burt is a reporter and editor for University Business. He can be reached at cburt@lrp.com