Rev. Dianna Smith still remembers the young blonde woman with tear-streaked cheeks, from 10 years ago. That college student fell apart asking Smith for cereal.
Serena Cruz can picture the college cafeteria worker, from two Christmases ago. He broke into a wide smile because she gave him food to stock his family's holiday table.
Smith, director of the Student Christian Center Food Pantry at SUNY New Paltz, and Cruz, a sophomore and a pantry volunteer, are on the front lines of Gov. Andrew Cuomo's two-plus-year effort to increase SUNY food pantry visits.
Of 10 state-designated regions, more students, staff and faculty visited the mid-Hudson's SUNY food pantries for food and household items than anywhere in New York, according to new state estimates.
The heavy usage comes in part from Cuomo's effort to ensure all 64 SUNY schools have a food pantry – on campus or nearby and affiliated – plus the pantries' publicity pushes. When the governor began the initiative in late 2017, three in 10 SUNY schools lacked a food pantry.
All told, the state projects SUNY food pantry usage reached a whopping 316,000 visits in 2019. But the governor's office did not provide a baseline estimate from when Cuomo began his effort.
With multiple schools, several main and satellite campuses, and needy students, staff and faculty, the state-defined mid-Hudson area led the state with an estimated 43,500 food pantry visits in 2019. To the state, the region's schools include SUNY New Paltz, SUNY Orange, SUNY Dutchess, SUNY Sullivan, SUNY Ulster, SUNY Rockland and SUNY Westchester.
Food pantries on or partnered with SUNY four-year campuses typically saw 25 to 50 visits daily, while those on or partnered with SUNY community colleges had 25 to 60 visits, the state projected.
Nearly eight in 10 pantries were located on SUNY campuses in 2019, with the remainder close by and affiliated. The state did not break down how many pantry visitors were students versus faculty and staff.
Smith, who recently served on the governor's SUNY Food Insecurity Task Force, estimated that 90 percent of visitors to SUNY New Paltz's food pantry, based in the Student Union, were students.
She expects 1,000 visitors in 2020, up from 750 in 2019, and she's already given out 4,000 pounds of food in 2020's first two months, double last year's rate.
SUNY food pantries typically get funding from a mix of donors, including private individuals, businesses and churches, Smith said.
All the food pantry visits reflect a major national need for help among students as college costs have risen sharply in recent years.
Including tuition, fees, room and board, and adjusting for financial aid relief, the average annual cost of attending college reached $7,560 for two-year community colleges, $14,210 for in-state residents attending public colleges and $26,100 for private nonprofit colleges in 2017, according to the College Board. Those costs are up 10 percent to 12 percent from five years prior.
Across America, meanwhile, more than one in five (22 percent) of college students had “very low levels of food security that qualify them as hungry” in 2016, according to the National Student Campaign Against Hunger and Homelessness, a 35-year-old nonprofit.
“People feel like, if they have the money to go away to college, they'll be able to afford necessities when a lot of the time people realize they just can't,” Cruz said. “College just keeps getting more expensive as they're decreasing funding to colleges.”
The Hudson Valley's high cost of living doesn't help matters. One adult, with no children, living in each of the counties that the state defines as the mid-Hudson can need between roughly $44,000 to $59,000 annually to survive.
That means earning $44,714 in Dutchess, $45,039 Orange, $59,611 in Putnam, $58,305 in Rockland, $38,958 in Sullivan, $41,580 in Ulster and $48,036 in Westchester counties, according to the Economic Policy Institute, a nonprofit research group. The EPI considers everything from health care to transportation costs.
“When I first began this (food pantry) 10 years ago, people would say, 'Well, if the students were not out buying beer, they wouldn't need it,' but those are not the students coming here,” Smith said.
SUNY food pantry visitors often work jobs, while attending school, and they still struggle to afford housing, textbooks, tuition and basic food “like rice and beans,” Smith added.
“People come in (to a SUNY food pantry), and they're so thankful, and it's touching,” said Smith, who's also New Paltz's protestant chaplain. “We just want them to know that we're here for them, and we won't judge them.”
Smith looked up from her desk with a smile on Friday as New Paltz sophomore Stephanie Trejo, 20, of Mount Kisco, visited the pantry looking for laundry detergent.
“It takes a lot of time management and working enough hours, so that you have enough money, and you don't overwork yourself, and you can live and do your schoolwork,” Trejo said.