Establishing a Food Pantry has long been a goal at Mercer County Community College (MCCC). The much-discussed project picked up steam in 2019, as the college became increasingly determined to address the problem of hunger and food insecurity among Mercer students.

According to Dr. Tonia Perry-Conley, Dean at the James Kerney Campus (JKC) in Trenton, it was a top priority when she joined the administration in Spring 2019.

Perry-Conley notes that for a significant number of MCCC students, finances are an ever-present concern. “When finances are tight, food insecurity poses a real problem. It can affect students’ performance in the classroom. In the long run, it can impact their ability to complete their degrees,” she said.

Food insecurity means that a person does not have reliable access to a sufficient quantity of affordable, nutritious food to maintain good health.

Before the pantries opened for business, a detailed webpage was developed for the college’s website that includes general information and a way for students to register and make an appointment. (Visit the Food Pantry webpage here.) An Amazon Wish List was also created to make donating to the pantry easy and efficient. Administrative Professional Bryan O’Neal assisted Perry-Conley with the project.

The JKC Food Pantry opened its doors in the fall of 2019. (The West Windsor Pantry was still under construction at the time.) “We received many donations from generous staff and community donors to get us started,” Perry-Conley said. “When the pandemic forced a shutdown in March 2020, we had already served a number of grateful students.”

Additional funding came from the state of New Jersey during the pandemic. The college was awarded a grant from New Jersey’s Hunger Free Campus program. “Of 11 colleges to receive the grant, we were one of only two community colleges,” Perry-Conley said, adding that the grant helped to firmly establish funding for the pantry.

In June 2020, the college hosted a two-day event for students and community members in need. “Everyone left with a bag of groceries. We got many donations from MCCC staff members and the community,” Perry-Conley stated.

With students back on campus in Fall 2021, the pantries at both campuses resumed their operations. Pantry Coordinator Jodi Marra, who started at MCCC in January, is looking forward to welcoming students to the pantries this spring.

The Pantry at JKC (KC403) is open Mondays and Wednesdays; the Pantry at WWC (SC123) is open Tuesdays and Thursdays. Hours of operation at both locations are 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Both locations afford students privacy during their visit; appointments are spaced 30 minutes apart to give each student adequate time to select what they need.

Marra, who also works as Executive Director for Meals on Wheels in Robbinsville, is pleased to be serving the college community. “Through Meals on Wheels, I assist seniors and homebound individuals. It’s great to be working with college students,” she said.

According to Marra, the MCCC pantries offer a variety of items, ranging from “Grab ’N Go” snack bags, to larger bags including pasta, beans, soups and other staples. Students may also select up to 15 items on their own from the shelves. Snack bags for students are placed in common areas around the college, including the EOF, Success Coach and Counseling Services offices. The bags contain granola or crackers, dried fruit and a bottle of water.

“While the MCCC pantries are not intended to be a student’s sole food source, they can be an important supplement in the face of limited resources,” Marra observes, adding that programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) are available for more prolonged periods of food insecurity.

Marra says she does not anticipate a problem keeping the shelves stocked. “We are fortunate to live in a very generous, volunteer-oriented community. Our food comes from food drives, individual donations, community organizations and student groups. When I started at the college in January, the shelves were a little light, but we are in good shape now.”

She notes that eight vehicles pulled up to the James Kerney Campus in mid-February to deliver 125 cartons of food donated by the Hamilton-Robbinsville Rotary Club. Among the items were vitamins, protein drinks, Starbucks coffees, and much more – “just the kinds of things college students would want. I couldn’t thank them enough,” Marra said.

In compliance with the Hunger Free Campus grant, the college will complete an annual survey to determine the extent of food insecurity among the student population and the number of students who have been served.

Marra expects service to students to get better and better. “We will know which items are most in demand, and what else our students are looking for,” she said. “We’re hoping to add fresh produce and breads in the future.”

Marra has served some students who are curious about unfamiliar foods. “I had a group of international students visit. They were curious about black-eyed peas. They wanted to know what to do with them. We pulled up recipes and discussed menus. I’d like to do more of that,” she said.

Most notably, Marra hopes students will move beyond any kind of stigma they may attach to seeking help and to feel comfortable when they visit. “This is a welcoming place. Students should know that we are here to help them. Whatever their struggles may be, they are not in it alone,” she said.

Those seeking to donate have multiple options. The easiest and most efficient way is through the pantry’s Amazon Wish List, where donors can order items that are delivered directly to the college. (See the link  here.) Items may also be dropped off at the Security Desks on both campuses. Cash donation may be made online  here. For questions, email  foodpantry@mccc.edu.

The Pantry is open during the Fall and Spring semesters. Students must register and book an appointment in advance. (Visits are limited to twice monthly.) Registration is available by scanning the QR code displayed on posters around the college, or online at: www.mccc.edu/pantry.

Those who are unable to visit the pantry during regular hours of operation or have questions should email foodpantry@mccc.edu.