Yehuda Wexler is living on slices of starchy kosher pizza.
The Baruch College sophomore works 20 hours a week, an overnight shift at a group home on Staten Island for people with autism, to help pay for his college expenses. He commutes by subway to the college’s Manhattan campus from his Ditmas Park neighborhood for more than an hour each way and finds that he does not have the time during the day to go back and forth between classes to a restaurant that offers affordable kosher food. There is no cafeteria at Baruch College.
Wexler also knows fellow students — many of whom are from cash-strapped émigré families and reluctant to admit they don’t have enough to eat — who discretely share leftovers from meals they ate in restaurants or items they baked back at home.
Wexler and his classmates are part of a largely hidden problem in a city where Jews are assumed to be comfortably middle and upper class: They suffer from “food insecurity,” defined by the federal government and city officials as “a lack of consistent access to enough food for an active, healthy lifestyle.”
That includes a perhaps unexpected number of Jewish students at universities in New York City.
According to a private study commissioned this year by UJA-Federation of New York, City University of New York students affiliated with Hillel “were experiencing food insecurity in greater numbers than previously thought.”
“That shocked us and worried us,” said Ilya Bratman, executive director of the Hillel at Baruch College — where Wexler gets his daily pizza.
“When we saw the results of the UJA-Federation survey we began to better understand the food insecurity — as well as mental health — needs of Hillel students on CUNY campuses,” said Benjamin Segal, special projects manager at the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty.
A recent press release issued by Met Council stated that “food insufficiency is prevalent among Jewish CUNY students, often first-generation college students from immigrant families. Many of these students may be expected to help support their parents and other family members, or are from low-income backgrounds and struggle to meet the costs of tuition and books as well as their daily living expenses.”
Met Council (metcouncil.org) recently distributed free High Holidays food packages at five CUNY campuses as part of a pilot project designed to both feed hundreds of participating students and to determine the extent of need among them. It has identified two primary causes of food insecurity among Jews on local campuses: many students, usually from financially limited, first-generation émigré families (especially from the former Soviet Union), simply cannot afford to buy enough food on a daily basis to sustain themselves; and other students, like Wexler, who balance part-time jobs with their schoolwork, find food inaccessible at their schools or in the surrounding area, often because what is available is not kosher or is inappropriate for other reasons.
As a follow-up, Met Council is designing an expanded food program for students at the CUNY schools, and possibly at other local campuses. David Greenfield, Met Council executive director, said the organization has begun a $250,000 fundraising drive for the expanded project.
“We are in ongoing dialogue with the Hillels and with UJA-Federation to explore how we can scale this program and ultimately introduce a more holistic program, whether that be a physical pantry or a digital pantry,” said Segal.
Segal said he knows of no other extensive, community-supported food program for Jewish students at other universities in the United States. “In New York it makes sense. We have the largest Jewish community, the largest community requiring kosher food, and also the greatest rates of poverty.
“Our goal,” Segal said, “is to maintain these [holiday-themed] offerings as ‘gifts’ rather than ‘handouts,’ timed to the holidays or other critical points in the school year, mid-terms, finals, etc.”
The participating CUNY schools in the food package program — the gift kits were packed by Met Council volunteers — were Baruch College, Brooklyn College, Hunter College, Queens College and the College of Staten Island. Each package contained a “Hungry to Help or Just Hungry?” card that offered information on Met Council programs (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Though the holiday packages were offered on a nonsectarian basis, most of the recipients were Jewish.
CUNY has traditionally served as the first choice for many college-bound émigrés from low-income families, since CUNY tuition is a fraction of that at private schools.
The UJA-Federation report combined anecdotal testimony from Hillel directors with a study commissioned by Gov. Andrew Cuomo that documented the food insecurity problem at state schools. The state’s “No Student Goes Hungry” initiative called on schools to provide “stigma-free” food to students.
The New York Times reported that “an estimated half of all college students struggle with food insecurity,” even at “elite” private and public universities. And a 2016 study conducted by the National Student Campaign Against Hunger and Homelessness found that 25 percent of students at community college and 20 percent at four-year colleges “struggle with hunger.”
“It’s a significant challenge,” Merav Fine Braun, executive director of Hunter College Hillel, told The Jewish Week. “People are becoming more aware. Many students come to Hillel [events] when there is food.”
The students’ parents themselves often do not know what dietary challenges their children are facing, Greenfield and other observers say.
While no one is starving, according to observers, an increasing number of Jewish college students are not getting enough to eat, and certainly are not getting enough nutritious food to eat healthily.
Yehuda Wexler said he was accustomed to eating three square meals a day at his family’s home in Brooklyn. Until he suffered a minor injury a few years ago and spent a year studying in Israel before entering college, he worked out regularly and was in good shape. Now his time for working out is severely limited.
He attends the daily programs offered by the school’s Hillel chapter that offer free kosher food — typically starchy fare like pizza. That’s all he gets to eat most days; rarely anything more nutritious. “It’s not the greatest [i.e., the healthiest] food,” he said. “I’ve gained 20 pounds” since entering college.
Besides social stigma, some students deal with falling grades because they lack the energy to concentrate in class or outside of class.
Wexler said the problem of food insecurity is “common knowledge” among his classmates at Baruch College. Sharing food is common, too, he said.
Students are often reluctant to admit that they cannot afford food, Greenfield said.
“It’s a big stigma and shame. When you are 20 years old, you don’t want people to know that you are poor.”