Campus News

UB launches Blue Table virtual food pantry service

Orientation Leader Urjitha Muthiah with Blue Table oversight group members Ben Fabian and Emily Bystrak.

Orientation leader Urjitha Muthiah (left) with Blue Table oversight group members Ben Fabian and Emily Bystrak at a food collection drive during a summer orientation session. Photo: Meredith Forrest Kulwicki


Published November 15, 2019

“We know that consistent access to nutritious food is a necessary part of being a successful, healthy student. ”
Ben Fabian, assistant director for student support, Student Conduct and Advocacy, and member, Blue Table oversight group

UB students who have trouble accessing affordable food now have support on campus from Blue Table. The online food pantry service began with a soft launch in April and has been fully operational since the beginning of the fall semester.

The first campuswide food drive for Blue Table will take place Nov. 18-22, with drop-off locations at 235 Student Union, 1Capen, 350 Student Union, The Elli in the Ellicott Complex, 120 Crofts Hall and 520 Capen Hall on the North Campus; 1 Diefendorf Hall and Harriman Hall on the South Campus; and on the first floor of the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences’ building on the Downtown Campus.

Blue Table offers students specific healthy food options; a list of the items that are collected is available online.

A crowdfunding drive also is underway through the end of November to raise money to sustain Blue Table. So far, more than 80% of the $10,000 goal has been raised.

“Food insecurity does not exist in isolation and can impact a wide range of individuals, including our students,” says Christina Hernandez, senior associate vice president and officer in charge for Student Life. “Blue Table provides connections to those in need in the form of food and referral to local sources.

“This campuswide food drive will help sustain the available resources needed for Blue Table to continue to support our students who find themselves in need,” Hernandez says. “I’m confident our campus community will step up and respond to this call for action.”

Adds Maria Wallace director of student unions and chair of the Blue Table oversight group: “We need the university’s support to sustain a food pantry for our students.”

An innovative approach

A collaboration between Student Life and the undergraduate Student Association, Blue Table provides students with easy access to food when they need it.

Blue Table is available to UB students “who experience unanticipated hardship and as a result don’t have consistent access to healthy food,” says Ben Fabian assistant director for student support in Student Conduct and Advocacy, and a member of the Blue Table oversight group.

“We know that consistent access to nutritious food is a necessary part of being a successful, healthy student,” Fabian says.

“We recognize that the overall cost of being a student is really significant, and that could include tuition or living expenses, personal expenses, books or supplies, and more often than not, our students are carrying this responsibility themselves,” he says. “And when a student’s budget is impacted by some type of unanticipated expense, food is one of the first things that is sacrificed.”

Students using Blue Table complete an online order form that includes a list of diverse and healthy food options that are available each week. Once the order is received, the groceries are bagged and ready to be picked up in 235 Student Union.

“We strive to provide students with an easy and effective way to combat food insecurity,” Wallace says.

A national issue

While food insecurity — the reduced quality, variety or intake of food because of affordability — may not be an issue that one ordinarily thinks college students face, it has become a growing concern on the nation’s college campuses.

Fabian cites a 2019 report by the Hope Center for College, Community and Justice, a nonprofit action research center at Temple University in Philadelphia, that found that food insecurity is widespread on American college campuses; current estimates suggest that close to half of undergraduates in the U.S. could experience food insecurity at some time while pursuing their degree.

Researchers say that while it can be difficult to assess the magnitude of the issue on a national scale, there is little doubt that a problem does exist.

Fabian notes that Blue Table operates with an understanding that as many as 20% of students at UB could be affected by some degree of food insecurity, an assessment informed by data obtained from the National College Health Assessment, implemented at UB in 2016 and 2019.

And since 2015, Student Conduct and Advocacy, the campus office that coordinates student emergency funds, has seen an increase in requests that indicates food insecurity is an issue for many students, he adds.

He also points out that the University Presbyterian Church (UPC) Food Pantry, which has a partnership with UB, also has seen an increase in student users since 2015.

And last year, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and SUNY Chancellor Kristina Johnson announced an initiative, No Student Goes Hungry, that requires all SUNY and CUNY campuses to implement food pantry or stigma-free food access programs.

UB established the UB Pantry Task Force during the summer of 2018 to look into the food insecurity issue on campus. Chaired by Sherri Darrow, now retired director of health promotion, the task force included staff, faculty and students, including former SA President Gunnar Haberl. During the fall 2018 semester, the group met with campus and community stakeholders, consulted with the SUNY Food Insecurity Task Force, conducted student focus groups and took part in a Blackstone Launchpad Innovation Sprint.

The task force’s findings “confirmed that food security is a need to be addressed,” Fabian says. The task force found that a successful food access program must be easily accessible, stigma-free and provide delivery of food in a short time frame, as well as offer opportunities for the campus community to support and sustain it.

Since launching in April, Blue Table has distributed more than 400 bags of groceries. The task force has transitioned to an oversight group whose members include Wallace, Fabian, student co-chair Matthew Taboni, Emily Bystrak and Janice Cochran of Health Promotion, Danielle Coats and Elizabeth Hladczuk of Student Unions, Elizabeth Lidano of Student Conduct and Advocacy, Rachel DiDomizio of Student Engagement, Adam Coats of Campus Dining and Shops, Ken Kern of Campus Living, Jared Strohl of the Office of Inclusive Excellence, Yibin Liu of Community Health and Health Behavior, and Jacqueline Hollins, associate vice provost and director of academic success initiatives.

Blue Table was originally stocked through a monetary contribution from the Student Association, and SA and Student Life have continued to organize food drives, including drives at summer orientation sessions. The oversight group hopes to sustain the Blue Table model by encouraging student, faculty and staff groups to coordinate food drives in their campus communities.

To make hosting food drives easy, the oversight group created a community toolkit that offers tips and resources for groups that want to collect food.

“The collaborative efforts throughout campus are essential when it comes to dealing with food insecurity,” says student co-chair Taboni. “Blue Table’s collaborative structure not only reaches more students, but also allows students, faculty and staff to get involved and create a culture of caring for the entire UB community​.”

Additional food support

Health Promotion offers additional food support for students through its Snacking Tuesdays, where students can stop by the Wellness Suite in 114 Student Union and pick up some fresh fruit and other healthy snacks.

And UB still maintains its partnership with the UPC Food Pantry. Students can visit the pantry at 3330 Main St., across from the South Campus, from noon to 4 p.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays to get non-perishable food items and basic necessities.