MIDDLESEX COUNTY – Amanda Lyons pulls up her file of thank you notes from Middlesex College students who have recently accessed the school’s food pantry.
There’s a heartfelt message from a single mom. There’s a note from a young woman who was living in her car. There’s a letter from a person who said the Middlesex County College Cares Food Pantry “helped me immensely to do for myself what I can't at this time.”
The Middlesex County College Cares Food Pantry is working to meet the demands for the life-sustaining nourishment from a cramped room on the bottom floor of College Center on the Edison campus
Lyons, the college’s basic needs coordinator, said their needs have increased dramatically in the 12 months since the COVID-19 pandemic began.
Since March 2020, 272 students have applied for food pantry support compared with 66 students who were accessing the food pantry in the fall of 2019.
“I’ve seen a lot of people have had serious job loss or income loss or family members who were providers lost to COVID,” Lyons said. “If you're a low-income kind of worker, you don't have a cushion, you don’t have a safety net. you’re kind of paycheck to paycheck. And, once those stop, you're just in trouble.”
Trouble, as in facing eviction, dealing with no childcare or scrounging money for car repairs.
Middlesex College, which has centers in New Brunswick and Perth Amboy, has found itself part of a growing national trend of institutions of higher learning who are being called on to help students facing socioeconomic struggles.
A recently published national survey of 227 community colleges and four-year institutions punctures a hole in the long-held perception of college students as privileged, coddled and enjoying an insular life in an ivy-covered tower.
Seventeen percent of students who responded to the so-called #RealCollege survey led by the Hope Center for College, Community and Justice at Temple University said they were homeless at some point in the previous year, and 39% of the said they were food insecure.
Almost half of the 167,000 students surveyed – 46% - said they faced some level of housing insecurity.
The challenge of helping its 10,000 or so students has been made more difficult for Middlesex College since the pandemic hit and the school began utilizing remote instruction. Bins where students made valuable contributions of canned and dry goods often sit empty inside empty buildings.
Middlesex County College Cares Food Pantry has drawn on other sources to keep its shelves stocked. Much of the food is supplied by Middlesex County Food Organization and Outreach Distribution Services (MCFOODS), but Lyons said the pantry has also begun to pool its resources with pantries in Edison and Metuchen.
Lyons is also using donations made through the Middlesex College Foundation to purchase supermarket gift cards that a dispersed to students from New Brunswick to New Market, from South Amboy to South River.
To get the groceries to students, the pantry has begun working with a door-to-door transportation service.
Other students have applied for emergency funds through the Foundation to help cover their rent and utilities.
The college has also been sensitive to students who were counting on access to the library to complete their studies. It has purchased 200 Chromebooks that are available to its students who face a digital divide during the pandemic.
As the basic needs coordinator for Middlesex College, Lyons sees that although vaccine distribution brings a ray of home, “the needs are not slowing down.” She sees how quickly a student can go from English and math to homeless and hungry.
“We have students who have been orphaned, both of their parents died from COVID,” Lyons said. “I had one student who told me she lost six family members.”
To make a donation to the Middlesex County College Cares Food Pantry visit, the Middlesex County Foundation webpage.