The Fresh Food Initiative is the newest addition to the Center for Civic and Community Engagement Center’s (CCEC) We Care Program. As an extension of the services the food pantry offers, the Fresh Food Initiative provides fresh fruits and vegetables to students facing food insecurity. In an interview with The Ramapo News, assistant director for We Care Program and community service Dylan Heffernan spoke more about the Fresh Food Initiative as well as food insecurity on campus.
Context and Campus Data
Heffernan said that food insecurity has been a continual issue for college students, but it has been highlighted over the past 10 years due to more research focusing on it. He also described the “students eating ramen” stereotype when it comes to food insecurity for college students.
“Everyone knows that when you think of ramen, some of the first things that come up… it’s the 50 cent squares of noodles you can find anywhere. Not a lot of setup. Nice and easy… The connection of college students surviving off of ramen, that’s food insecurity,” he said.
He also explained that there are levels of food insecurity, such as starvation with access to no food and lack of access to healthy food. Food insecurity is built into the identity of college students, but Heffernan said there’s also the struggle to learn and succeed, which can lead to internalized food insecurity.
In 2017, Coordinator for Civic and Political Engagement Karen Booth brought issues like food insecurity and housing insecurity to the Student Government Association. The We Care Program began as a reaction after hearing the stories of student struggles. While pursuing his master’s at Ramapo, Heffernan was one of the first two interns to work for the We Care Program in 2018. Heffernan helped build up and oversee the Student Relief Fund while the other intern oversaw the food pantry.
Heffernan also cited a student survey that Associate Professor of Sociology Kristin Kenneavy conducted around that time. It was one of the first surveys the CCEC had about food insecurity for students on campus. 680 students responded to the survey, and the responses revealed that 100 students needed food on a daily to monthly basis, 121 needed basic supplies on a daily to monthly basis and 21 students needed daily access to housing.
“680 students is not 5,000 some odd students at the time so it’s not necessarily the most accurate sample… but at the end of the day though, it still recorded that about 100 students needed access to food, so it really solidified the need for the program,” he said.
Two more surveys have taken place on campus since. A state-required survey in spring 2021 revealed that 33% of the 829 surveyed students experienced some level of food insecurity on campus. Last year, the Center for Health and Counseling Services held its survey known as the National College Health Assessment, which found that 44% of the 705 students surveyed experienced food insecurity.
Fresh Food Initiative
The Fresh Food Initiative moved forward this year with $50,000 in grant money that the CCEC received. The grant was the result of New Jersey’s 2019 Hunger-Free Campus Act, which allocates money to higher education institutions classified as hunger-free campuses. Although Ramapo was classified as a hunger-free campus and the CCEC applied for the grant each year, it did not receive the grant until January 2023.
The money piece was what was important. The food pantry continued operating during the pandemic and is currently open five days a week on campus in ASB130. Heffernan said fresh food is hard to come by, so the We Care Program wanted to use the grant money to kickstart this program if they received it.
Biweekly, the CCEC will buy bags of fresh fruits and vegetables from local supermarkets like Shoprite. The number of bags will be determined by how many responses they receive from a week-long survey that runs in Daily Digest. Students can fill out the survey, then pick up their bag at the food pantry the following week.
Feb. 14 marked the second time the Fresh Food Initiative delivered fresh food bags. The Fresh Food Initiative delivered 30 bags the first time on Jan. 14 and 27 bags most recently. Heffernan said those numbers were “wonderful because normally [they] see that many students use the pantry a month.”
Featured photo by Matthew Wikfors