At 11 a.m. on Feb. 14, SUNY Chancellor Jim Malatras visited Binghamton University’s Food Pantry in the College-in-the-Woods to discuss food inequity within the SUNY system.

Those who partook in the discussion included BU President Harvey Stenger, Student Association (SA) Vice President for Finance Jacob Eckhaus, a senior majoring in accounting, and Linda Salomons, parent, family and events coordinator and food pantry coordinator. During this meeting, Malatras praised the BU Food Pantry, describing it as a model for all schools within the SUNY system. Malatras proceeded to announce the introduction of a grant of up to $1,000 available for all SUNY campuses to use to introduce refrigeration within their food pantries, emulating the BU model. The grant can be requested by student associations or campus food pantry coordinators and will be open for applications in the coming week.

As Malatras toured the BU Food Pantry, he expressed his approval, describing its refrigeration system as an integral part of the pantry’s effectiveness, highlighting the well-rounded diet provided by the presence of more options.

“I want every one of our food pantries to look like what we have here [at BU],” Malatras said. “What they’ve been able to do is not an afterthought, it’s a central part of their experience. There are proteins, there are fresh goods [and] there are eggs and other things. Not just canned goods.”

Food pantries were made mandatory for SUNY campuses in 2019 as part of New York State (NYS) Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s “No Student Goes Hungry” program. According to Malatras, BU alone has experienced an increase of 43 percent in students visiting food pantries during the COVID-19 pandemic, a challenge he seeks to address across SUNY with the new grant.

The $1,000 grant will be available to any campus that currently has no refrigeration system in their food pantry, which includes half of the 64 SUNY campuses. Malatras seeks to implement refrigeration systems in each SUNY campus by the fall of 2021.

“We have a big goal ahead, and we think this grant will go a long way to getting us there,” Malatras said.

In addition to refrigeration, Stenger also praised the BU Food Pantry student experience, noting that the Food Pantry has an online pickup form that alleviates the stigma students may feel if they are left to use the pantry themselves.

“You want to do it in a respectful way, and people don’t want to admit they have food insecurity,” Stenger said.

Malatras credited the refrigeration initiative concept to members of the SUNY Student Voices Action Committee, which includes Eckhaus, who had emphasized the pressing issue of food insecurity among his peers. Malatras described food insecurity as a growing issue among SUNY campuses.

“It’s been exacerbated by the [COVID-19] pandemic and driven by the economic anxieties and challenges because of the pandemic,” Malatras said. “Nearly one-third of our students have experienced hunger at some point in their college careers. A third. That’s too many students.”

According to Malatras, the refrigeration grant is only the latest step in efforts made by SUNY to tackle food insecurity. Last week, Malatras announced an auto-enrollment initiative in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), a program that provides nutritional assistance to SUNY and CUNY students. The recent change to the program will allow for SUNY students to substitute the previous eligibility requirements with certain kinds of coursework. According to Malatras, only nearly a quarter of eligible students had applied for the program, an issue that he hopes auto-enrollment will combat.

“This is a benefit that they are entitled to, and we want to make sure they are being enrolled in that program because that’s a major source in providing nutritional value,” Malatras said.

As Universities across the SUNY system continue to challenge the issue of food insecurity, Malatras views recent initiatives as integral to the educational success of students.

“We want them to excel in their studies and hunger is one of the detriments and the barriers to making excellent students,” Malatras said.