What are Neighboring Colleges Doing to Fight Food Insecurity?

Gather Cafe opens at Great Bay Community College

Gather cafe ribbon about to get cut.

Rhianwen Watkins, Arts Editor

After hours free fridge. (Photos by Watkins)

Cheryl Lesser, president of Great Bay Community College in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, stood smiling among her colleagues behind the royal blue ribbon that crossed in front of them. With an enormous pair of scissors in hand, Lesser clamped them down, breaking the ribbon in two. An outpour of cheers erupted from the crowd. 

Behind Lesser and her team stood the newest addition to the college; one that had been in the making for a long time. The words “Gather Café” were showcased in colorful lettering on the wall, and beneath them, a fully equipped kitchen offering an assortment of delicious and affordable foods.

The goal of introducing the café was to help alleviate hunger on campus by creating nutritious food options for students, at affordable prices. The college has a three-year partnership with Gather, a local organization with a mission of helping to end food insecurity on the seacoast through food distribution programs, their Gather Pantry Market, and collaborations such as the one with Great Bay Community College for the creation of the Gather Café.

In attendance at the grand opening of the Gather Café were staff members, community members and Gather volunteers serving free meals to attendees. Representatives from the offices of US Senator Jeanne Shaheen, US Senator Maggie Hassan, and Congressman Chris Pappas, were also present to relay each of their congratulatory remarks to the college.

“The bottom line is that the food insecurity issues here on this campus and across the system are so strong that we had to do something to alleviate that,” said Lesser. She added that the college already has a cupboard also in collaboration with Gather, which offers free food for students to take home to cook and quick snack items for in between classes.

“But we needed more,” Lesser continued.

The café offers items such as packaged sandwiches for $4.50 and coffee for $1.00. But even better, all students get all the food 50 percent off, meaning sandwiches are only $2.25 and coffee is only 50 cents. 

“If the students don’t have enough money for that, they can eat free,” added Lesser. “We will ensure that.”

In addition, the café is open to the community, not just students.

The café provides 60 meals every week, served throughout the day and cooked by Gather volunteers. It also offers an after-hours refrigerator stocked with free food that students can grab easily even after the café is closed.

“It’s a win-win for both organizations,” said Tania Marino, the Cooking 4 Community director at Gather. The college benefits from the services of Gather volunteers providing affordable food to the students, and in return, Gather has use of the 1,000 square-foot commercial-grade kitchen which they simultaneously use for their Cooking 4 Community program.

The Cooking 4 Community program partners with local restaurants and markets to save food that otherwise would have been thrown out due to minor appearance flaws or too much of a product, and turns it into about 600 repurposed, delicious meals that are distributed to underprivileged members of the community through Mobile Markets and the Gather Pantry Market every week. “Eighty to 90 percent of what we use is food that’s being repurposed that would otherwise be destined for landfill,” said Marino.

“I think a lot of people assume that the seacoast is a fairly affluent area, and that I think there’s a misperception about the number of food insecure that are actually in our communities,” Marino added.

In New Hampshire, about 94,450 people deal with food insecurity each year, 24,360 of those being children, according to the Feeding America Network, a U.S. hunger relief organization. That means one in 14 people are food insecure, with one in 11 being children.

Numerous national studies have found that over 50% of community college students struggle with food insecurity each year.

Val Connolly, a student at Great Bay Community College on the student Government Association and a work study student with Gather, said that food insecurity for students can take away from their ability to put all their energy towards learning.

“It’s another stressor,” said Connolly. She added that many students on top of their studies have to worry about how they are going to afford their classes, and many have to work while being full time students.

“We have a lot of students who are parents and have families that they contribute towards. So having our students have to worry and think about if their family is going to eat tonight, it really is distracting from their studies. It can really affect their mental health,” Connolly said.

“Their performance absolutely suffers because of it and it’s not related in any way to their abilities, to their ambitions, to their interest in a course or the content or their program or anything. It’s these external factors,” said Jordan Fansler, professor of history, sociology, and political science at Great Bay Community College. “Being able to take care of that kind of stuff here with something like this is exactly what a community college is meant to do.”

Fansler added that many students have trouble opening up about facing food insecurity. He emphasized that the Gather café is helpful in that it allows students to access food without having the public know about the financial struggles in their personal life, because it is open to everyone.

Brittany Mulkigian, director of student life at Great Bay Community College, said that over the summer, the college did a soft open so that the café would be available to students at the start of classes. 

“I’ll never forget the first day of school,” said Mulkigian. “I walked by and saw groups of students sitting at tables, eating, laughing, on their laptops, and I actually was brought to tears. It just was the exact vision that I wanted for a place like this. There’s so many emotions and stories, you know, students meeting each other, students coming together back on their campus, but also students knowing that there is a very consistent food source for them here at Great Bay Community College.”

The café is open to students, professors and the public Mondays through Fridays 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. with the after-hours fridge available for free at all times.

“It’s feeding students. It’s giving them a sense of belonging, which contributes significantly to their persistence and completion of their education,” said Mulkigian.