Synagogue and community college partner to feed students

For three nights every two weeks, worshipers at Temple Beth Elohim gather in the synagogue kitchen to discuss menus, chop up heaps of vegetables and season boxes full of chicken, which they will turn into fully prepared meals for their neighbors a few miles to MassBay Community College.

Volunteers prepare, pack, freeze and deliver 120 meals every two weeks to the campus in Wellesley Hills, a suburb of Boston, as part of a new partnership between the synagogue and the college, which then distributes the meals free of charge to students who needs this.

The campus dining program was launched this semester by volunteers from TBE Table, a program launched by the synagogue during the pandemic, as economic hardship has become a dominant theme of the public health emergency and signals the spread of people losing their jobs and suffering from hunger. The effort was inspired by a local church leader who started a free lunch program and urged other church leaders to do the same. When organizers of Temple Beth Elohim programs began hearing stories of community college students not having enough to eat, they contacted campus administrators and offered to add students to the resident roster. local and community groups to which they provide meals.

The congregants wanted to work with MassBay, whose campus they saw as an extension of their community, “because they’re in our backyard and because we knew during the pandemic that community college students in particular are experiencing very high rates of food insecurity,” said Barbara Turk, a volunteer who helps prepare meals at the synagogue. “As long as we can feed them, as long as they don’t have to worry about where their meal or how to feed their child at least twice a week, they can focus on their studies, getting their diploma, getting good jobs, getting a better salary… It’s really worth it.

Students can fill out an online form and receive up to five meals a week from the synagogue. Since the partnership began on Feb. 1, at least 60 students have taken advantage of the new meal option, although administrators expect that number to rise. Some 271 meals have been distributed so far.

The quorum leaders eagerly accepted the synagogue’s offer of assistance. At least 52% of MassBay students suffer from food insecurity, and these percentages are even higher for certain groups of students: 55% of female students and 75% of black students say they struggle with food insecurity, according to a recent survey. with MassBay students. conducted by the Hope Center for College, Community and Justice at Temple University, which studies the insecurity of students’ basic needs. Meanwhile, 82% of students work full-time, about half receive financial aid, 35% are first-generation students, and nearly half are responsible for caring for family members.

“The idea of ​​a neighbor helping us out was very powerful,” said Elizabeth Blumberg, vice president of student development and dean of students at MassBay.

The community college has a number of ongoing efforts to address student hunger, coordinated by the Student Food and Care Committee, or SNACC, a group of students, community volunteers, members of the staff and faculty that formed in 2015 to address basic needs insecurity among MassBay students. . There are plastic bins filled with granola bars, crackers, oatmeal packets and other snacks parked around campuses. The Framingham campus receives containers of soup for food-insecure students through a local nonprofit called Daniel’s Table. The college also launched a partnership with a local grocery store this fall where applying students can purchase up to $80 worth of groceries every two weeks. Last semester, 206 students shopped this way.

All of these efforts combined address only a fraction of student needs, but Blumberg said partners such as Temple Beth Elohim are helping to supplement the college’s existing programs and fill in some of the support gaps.

David Koppisch, associate director of community engagement at the Hope Center, said colleges and universities often rely on these kinds of local partnerships to provide support, including with faith communities, to fight hunger. and housing insecurity among students. For example, Millersville Community United Methodist Church runs a program called The Hub to feed hungry students at nearby Millersville University in Pennsylvania. Nazun, a multi-campus Jewish student organization, formerly known as Challah for Hunger, bakes and sells bread to raise funds for food-insecure students.

Trinity Church, the historic institution in Lower Manhattan in New York, recently awarded a grant to the Borough of Manhattan Community College to provide housing for homeless students.

“We’re seeing that more and more, which is great,” Koppisch said. “We know there are gaps in service. There are holes in the safety net that colleges are doing what they can to fix but sometimes can’t do everything but here are all these community groups in most cities, most cities that are there that know how to deal with food insecurity or housing issues or other types of things, so why not bring them to the table? »

Atif Qarni, chief executive of external affairs at the Hope Center and former Virginia secretary of education, said these partnerships should be celebrated and encouraged, but broader, longer-term policy solutions are essential to combating poverty. hunger among community college students.

The goal is “systemic change,” meaning that “local, state and federal governments are stepping up efforts to inject more resources for students in need,” he said. He noted that not all community colleges have nearby religious communities with the resources to help feed their students.

Qarni noted that the US Department of Education in January announced $198 million in additional funding in COVID-19 relief for community colleges and other institutions serving low-income students to meet their needs. fundamentals.

“We would like to see this grow and not just be a one-off thing,” he said.

He also wants to see state and federal policymakers tackle the high costs of college education.

He added that faith communities can be “strategic partners” for colleges and their food-insecure students, not only through food and housing initiatives, but also in advocating for policy change.

Some policymakers have strong relationships with religious leaders and “when they hear about their religious partners, their pastors or imams or their rabbis, they tend to listen,” he said. “So I think we can leverage them strategically to advocate for basic needs insecurity and get more government resources.”

Blumberg agreed that community colleges often lack the resources to meet the dietary needs of their students.

“At the end of the day, community colleges are funded at a much lower rate than our state sister institutions, the four-year colleges,” she said. “More of our students are going to community colleges, and yet we have less money… If we had more funding, we would be able to do more meals, we would be able to do more delivery services. There are so many more things we could do if we had extra funds.

Joel Sisenwine, chief rabbi of Temple Beth Elohim, said the meals are meant to help students “focus on their studies while continuing on their path to success.”

“This program is closely aligned with our value of comforting and caring for our community,” he said in a press release.

Blumberg pointed out that students’ academic progress depends on their ability to access good meals. She expects TBE Table meals to improve school retention and academic success, which has been the case for other college-run food programs. For example, in the fall of 2019, the college offered 48 students scholarships for meals. Their average GPA went from 3.09 to 3.12 after receiving the funds, Blumberg said. In contrast, students who were eligible for a scholarship but did not receive one due to a lack of available funding saw their average GPA drop from 2.90 to 2.53. In spring 2020, 70 students received meal grants, and these students returned to MassBay the following semester at a rate 21 percentage points higher than the overall retention rate.

“I really believe that their ability to focus and concentrate is supported by the food they receive,” she said. “It’s this empowerment piece – they don’t have to worry, they’re not distracted, they just had a good meal and they’re back in math class.”

Turk, the Temple Beth Elohim volunteer, said the meals are also intentionally designed to be healthy, with fresh vegetables and protein, and the volunteers want them to look appetizing.

“It’s really tasty; it looks gorgeous,” Turk said. “Presentation is so important because we want people to feel valued and respected. They don’t just open a box of macaroni and cheese. They really do get a restaurant quality meal, which I think makes a difference to people. No one wants to feel like they’re getting second-hand food from someone.

Blumberg noted that the form students fill out to receive meals asks them what their favorite foods are, which synagogue volunteers consider when planning menus. Past meals have included vegetable lasagna and pulled chicken with black beans over brown rice with cornbread.

The volunteers don’t just want to feed the students, she said. “I think they really want to connect with our students and help them enjoy their food and look forward to it.”

For her, one of the benefits of providing meals through a community partnership over options like an on-campus pantry is that personal touch. She thinks it reduces the stigma.

“When a student feels bad, when they don’t have enough money, it affects them psychologically, emotionally, and I think it impacts their ability to succeed academically,” he said. she stated. “But if they just grab that granola bar or they get that Temple Beth Elohim meal, there’s a lot less shame in that. And I think that just increases their energy, their zest, and their desire to learn and succeed.

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