By Alex Raskin
Food insecurity in New Jersey alone has increased by well over 150% since the pandemic began, according to reports by the Community Foodbank of New Jersey.
Students at the College are no exception.
Before the pandemic, an estimated 1 in 3 college students experienced food insecurity. This rise can be attributed to high unemployment rates, campus resource closures and long-standing Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) restrictions for college students, according to a study published August 2020.
The College opened a food pantry called The SHOP @ TCNJ in Campus Town in February 2019 with the intent to address food insecurity on campus — a rising issue at many colleges and universities.
For choice pantries like The SHOP where clients would normally hand pick their groceries, the pandemic has posed a number of challenges. Case Management Specialist and Manager of The SHOP Alexa Horvath has seen the struggles first-hand.
“Logistics have probably been the biggest challenge: considering health guidelines and working with decreased staffing, working to find a way to be able to provide these services while also keeping everyone safe,” Horvath said.
The SHOP’s patronage has declined by roughly half since the campus transitioned to virtual learning in March 2020. Horvath says The SHOP averages around just three clients per week.
Hannah Statler, a senior women’s gender and sexuality studies major, has been getting groceries from the SHOP on and off since it first opened.
“I’m pretty much financially independent, and by the time I pay all of my bills, I don’t really have a lot of money left over to do as much shopping as I need,” Statler said.
Patrons use a qualtrics survey to sign up for appointment times, then pick up pre-packaged bags.
“This helps limit contact for all, while also decreasing time people spend in that small space,” Horvath said. “We currently estimate one pre-packed bag per person, but visitors are welcome to take what they need.”
Though the prepackaged bags serve a sanitary purpose, students with dietary restrictions, Statler included, can end up taking home food they cannot eat.
“The last time I went and got a pickup bag it had tuna in it. Luckily I have people in my house that eat that, but if not, that would have just contributed to more food waste,” she explained.
Though Statler feels comfortable visiting The SHOP and can get the groceries she needs, she struggles with Campus Police’s role at the pantry.
“The last time I was there it was kind of weird because the police were having a photoshoot in The SHOP during the middle of my pickup time, which no one told me about when I originally scheduled. It was really weird and off putting, honestly. I haven’t been back since.”
Because Campus Police is active on campus daily, they play a large part in staffing the pantry and in procuring donations, according to Anum Kazmi who works at the pantry in her role as AmeriCorps Food Security Coordinator at the College.
Statler suggested that The SHOP could better cater to clients by limiting Campus Police involvement and noted that many people, especially low-income students, students with mental health issues and students of color, may not want to interact with the police.
“I think that would probably make some people feel more comfortable using the pantry,” Statler explained.
Statler found out about the pantry through the Dean of Students office and when she joined the Bonner program, but said she wouldn’t have known about it otherwise.
Those inside the operation agree that it isn’t well known.
“I honestly didn’t know I could utilize The SHOP’s services until I began volunteering here and when I was able to see the space and how it runs,” Kazmi said. “Now, my main priority is to make sure that The SHOP is accessible and well-marketed to students, faculty and staff and the community.”
According to Kazmi, The SHOP markets its services on its website, Instagram and Facebook accounts. Kazmi is looking to better market the pantry and its services by connecting with clubs and local organizations, by making signs and more. In her marketing efforts, she emphasizes that the pantry is open and serves as “a space for anyone and everyone, no questions asked.”
The pantry plans to make other changes in the coming months, including adding frozen meat to the inventory, according to Janelle Ntim, a senior political science major who works with The SHOP in her role as a Bonner Scholar.
Ntim hopes the next addition to The SHOP will be fresh produce.
“It is important to me that The SHOP includes items that are focused on nutrition such as fruits and vegetables,” she explained.
“I’m passionate about being supportive to all the members of the community,” Ntim said. “The work that I do at The SHOP is more about alleviating the stress that food insecurity can put on a person. It is being able to allow others to spend their time focusing on other things rather than where their next meal is coming from.”
Horacio Hernandez, a 2019 alumnus and Hopewell Health Department’s Vulnerable Populations Outreach Coordinator, was one of the first people to staff The SHOP in his previous role as an AmeriCorps member at the College.
He feels passionate about working at The SHOP in part because food insecurity isn’t widely discussed on campus as something that students and faculty are experiencing.
“There are students that you go to class with, there are friends you have, that maybe are facing it,” he explained. “Just because we don’t see it in one area doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.”
The additional stress the pandemic puts on food availability has been difficult on students, faculty and community members alike.
“The barriers preventing (students) from performing well both in and out of the classroom have never been so high,” Horvath said.
The TCNJ CARES program has received increased requests for emergency food and housing aid over the past three years, especially during long breaks. Horvath and the rest of The SHOP’s team hopes to be a resource for those students and community members.
“Having a food pantry like The SHOP helps people worry about one less thing,” Horvath said. “Also, for students, it helps us assist them in building connections to more sustainable, long-term resources such as the TCNJ Cares program, Mercer Street Friends, NJ SNAP, WIC, TASK, and other campus or human service agencies.”
Hernandez’ hope for The SHOP when he left was for it to be “a one-stop shop, that if someone is coming to utilize it that they feel welcomed, they feel that they are able to share their story and their experiences, and that we can be a way to help if they need resources for X, Y and Z.”
“It’s great that we have this initiative now, but it’s something that all colleges, all spaces, all communities should have readily available,” Kazmi explained. “No one should be denied access to food because of their status or whatever it may be.”
“Food insecurity impacts a lot of people, especially college students. That’s a commonly overlooked group when talking about food insecurity. How can students be expected to focus on academics, extracurriculars, etc, when they don’t really have adequate access to food?” said Statler.