Brookdale takes steps to address food insecurity among students

Eric Sucar

Brookdale Community College administrators are working to ensure that students are equipped to work, study and conduct the tasks of daily life without feeling the effects of an empty stomach.

On Sept. 17, staff members, community partners and dignitaries attended the grand opening of the institution’s Helping Hands lounge on the college’s Lincroft campus.

The Helping Hands lounge is a formal space for students who are food insecure to gather, eat meals free of charge and collect food items to take home.

Katherine Edward, Brookdale’s director of educational services outcome assessment, said the installation of a formal space on the second floor of the main academic complex was spearheaded by a need for healthy food she said was present on campus.

For the past three years, Edward said, buckets filled with nutritional snacks and drinks have been placed in buildings on campus. The locations of the buckets were only known to students who discretely identified as food insecure.

Students who identified as food insecure were able retrieve healthy snacks inconspicuously, Edward said.

“(Some members of faculty and staff) asked the college if we could do a little bit more than what we started with three years ago with the grab and go snacks,” Edward said. “… We have had several hundred students (sign up) over the years.

“We wanted to do much more from the beginning and even start a pantry, which is the new Helping Hands lounge … (The lounge) is for students who have a little bit of taxing on their financial abilities. (Students) can even bring some food home,” Edward said.

Furniture, mental health counselors, pre-packaged food, microwavable food, paper goods and drinks will be available in the Helping Hands lounge, Edward said.

Synde Kaufman, ESL administrator, said food donations come from different sources.

“What really pushed us forward is New Jersey’s secretary of higher education, Ellis Smith … Her concept of higher education is that she needs to support students to get them into colleges. Her whole mantra is about the basic needs of a student and connecting colleges to local resources such as social services,” Kaufman said.

The schedule for when the lounge will be available to students will be finalized in October, Kaufman said, adding that the grand opening took place at this time because September is Hunger Action Awareness Month.

Robin Gardiner, network engagement team supervisor for the local food bank Fulfill, said a mobile food pantry will be available on campus every third Tuesday of the month from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m.

The mobile pantry, which will provide students with nutritious foods such as fresh fruit and vegetables, serves as an extension of the new Helping Hands lounge, Gardiner said.

Students may acquire food from the mobile pantry when they are on campus. The mobile pantry will be in the visitors parking lot behind the Brookdale Administration Center.

“Students will be able to take food home to their families,” Gardiner said.

The Helping Hands lounge is a modest space embellished by motivational posters and positive reminders to live well. Information and resources that pertain to local food pantries, soup kitchens and the Monmouth County Division of Social Services are provided at the location.

In his remarks, Brookdale President David Stout said the Community College Opportunity Grant has helped support the school’s initiative to install a food pantry on campus.

“We are here in a wealthy county and sometimes when we hear our students are facing food insecurity, people may be stunned,” Stout explained. “Sometimes (people) don’t believe food insecurity is a major issue for us here … We are dedicating this space that we know will be serving so many of our students.

“This is an important part of Brookdale fulfilling its mission. Our mission is to help our students achieve their goals. It’s very difficult for our students to reach their goals when they are hungry,” Stout said.

Nationally, Stout said, more than one in three college students are lacking access to affordable, nutritious food.

Following the dedication ceremony, a small gathering of students was waiting to receive food from the Fulfill Mobile Food Pantry for the first time. Fruits, vegetables, baked goods and canned goods were available for students.

The Helping Hands lounge partners include JBJ Soul Kitchen; Lunch Break; Bookdale Foundation and Alumni Association; Lincroft Bible Church; Broookdale Volunteer Connection; Girl Scouts of the Jersey Shore (Ocean and Monmouth counties); Monmouth County Social Services; Brookdale Professor Deb Mura; and Fulfill.