Students Hangry at CUNY Cafeteria Still Shut Two Years After Return to Class
Hostos Community College students are entering their second year of in-person classes. But they still have to go off-campus for food.
The cafeteria at Hostos Community College closed when the pandemic shut down New York. Nearly three years later, it remains shuttered — and hungry students who have returned to campus want it back.
Hostos students demanded the college reopen its school cafeteria on Wednesday at a rally inside a campus building, saying their waning energy levels due to lack of access to nutrition on campus have made it harder to get through classes.
The cafeteria has been closed since spring 2020 when the COVID-19 struck New York.
Students at the rally at the Bronx school said the closure limits available healthy options. Their alternatives include fast food restaurants on the often busy 149th Street and Grand Concourse in Mott Haven, bodegas, a popular halal cart in front of the campus or whatever’s available in the nearest vending machine.
“The vending machine is not enough. You can’t put no sandwich in the vending machine,” said 22-year-old radiology student Sulenny Dominguez, one of the rally’s organizers, who added that they had to face combative campus security guards that stood outside the dining hall as students sat with rally signs.
The students protesting had previously been asked to leave a different campus building by security as they marched and protested. “If you don’t have a full stomach, you don’t have a happy heart.”
A Hostos spokesperson said the cafeteria will reopen in the coming spring 2023 semester and that its procurement office is in the final stages of solidifying a contract with a food service vendor, attributing the holdup to the previous one leaving much of the equipment in the cafeteria in poor working condition.
Students currently have a space to eat in the dining hall that’s connected to the closed cafeteria.
“Hostos Community College makes the health and well-being of its students a high priority. Despite many challenges during the past two years, the College has gradually re-opened many crucial services for its students,” said spokesperson Diana Kreymer, highlighting interim microwave ovens and vending machines that have hot coffee and tea, salads, hot sandwiches and breakfast foods.
“During each phase of the College’s re-opening, the seating area in the cafeteria was accessible, for both day and evening students, who brought their meals to campus,” she said. “We look forward to working with a vendor to secure food service in the near future.”
Kreymer added that the demand for on-campus food services was not high pre-pandemic, as students preferred to bring food from home or grab meals from fast food restaurants nearby, resulting in vendors losing money.
No Time, No Food
Complaints have piled up in recent months for CUNY schools, especially in the borough. Bronx Community College has had issues heating its buildings and both students and faculty have criticized the university’s Covid protocols that disallow testing at non-CUNY sites.
Mariam Ouederaogo, a 23-year-old liberal arts student who attended Wednesday’s rally, has two early afternoon classes that are only half an hour apart. The limited time to have lunch would be easier with a nearby cafeteria, she said, but she has to leave campus for meals.
“I don’t have enough time to sit and eat,” she said. “I’m usually late for class.”
Food insecurity can lead to academic difficulties for students in the classroom, according to a survey from Healthy CUNY and the CUNY Graduate School for Public Health and Public Policy published in 2018. About one in five CUNY undergraduate students experience food insecurity, the survey found.
That study measured students’ level of food insecurity based on campuses that had access to a full cafeteria. While it underlined that lack of money is a major reason for the insecurity — campus cafeterias don’t offer free food — students also reported having gone hungry for lack of convenient access to meals.
Michael Partis, executive director of The Bronx Cooperative Development Initiative, a local economic development organization, told THE CITY Hostos has “a tremendous opportunity” to “reimagine, especially at a public university, what is our relationship to food,” including prioritizing ethically and locally sourced food and Bronx businesses.
“This could be an opportunity for that instead of going with a major corporation,” said Partis, noting that limited contract visibility, months-long delays in payments and expensive liability insurance often limits small businesses from obtaining contracts with large institutions like CUNY.
Partis added that the contract could be an opportunity for what BCDI calls economic democracy, building wealth for Black and Brown Bronxites and a system where they begin to scale up food supply and source local vendors who could reinvest in workers in a “cooperative system.”
Students and faculty alike suggested solutions. Liberal arts major Allan Casas, 23, proposed an on-campus garden big enough to feed campus-goers. And both Partis and math professor Lauren Wolf pointed to community kitchens.
“What I’d like to see, ideally, is a mutual aid kitchen to come in here and feed our students,” Wolf said.