WINSTED — The Food for Thought pantry at Northwestern Connecticut Community College (NCCC) has been serving the university community for three and half years.
Located in the Founder’s Annex of the campus, the pantry began as an Honor Society project organized by the students in the Phi Theta Kappa honor society program after a period of research and fundraising.
The project is spearheaded by two dedicated faculty, who spend countless hours outside of teaching to keep the project running: Professor Todd Bryda, a professor of history — who teaches all history courses at the school — who also teaches American government and an intro to the German language course, and has worked at NCCC since 1999; and Crystal Wiggins, an associate professor of mathematics who created, developed and teaches all data science courses at the school, a new program for NCCC.
Bryda and Wiggins are both PTK honor society faculty advisors, who run the food pantry behind-the-scenes. The idea for Food for Thought came following a PTK international convention that sparked student and faculty interest in addressing local food insecurity, Bryda said.
“We discovered from the surveys we did, that something like a third of the student body had some form of food insecurity, which matched up with the national studies,” Bryda said. “But it was something that we hadn’t thought about because we have so many other things we’re trying to juggle.”
Bryda and Wiggins certainly do no’t run the operation by themselves, relying both on volunteer support to help stock the pantry and distribute goods, as well as financial support and donations.
“Our student workers, Lee Greenwald and Nick Cerruto have been a Godsend as they are on the front lines preparing and handing off the supplies,” they said. “Without them, we would have to close our doors. We also get a tremendous amount of support from our maintenance crew and our volunteer staff supervisors who agree to be there for the student workers if they need support.”
The pantry also values privacy and the desire for discretion from many students, locating the pantry in a non-central area of campus and creating a system for students to make appointments to pick up food. The food pantry is in every course’s syllabus at the university to ensure all students are aware of their options for support in staying fed. Utilizing the pantry should be an easy process for everyone, Wiggins said.
“It’s why we named our pantry ‘Food For Thought’,” she said. “So that it wasn’t called a pantry, we kind of tried to eliminate it and make it a little bit more fun and lighthearted.”
Of her many hats at the school, Wiggins also collects data on the pantry’s usage. When the pandemic hit in March of 2020, the pantry paused until May to process what moving forward could look like during the virus. But it returned in full force that summer, sending out $6700 in Stop & Shop gift cards to 82 students and families during the season. Half the donations came from faculty and staff, and around $3000 came from direct donations from the Winsted Stop & Shop itself.
“Once we got our breath again, summer hit, and Todd and I realized that our students are hurting like never before,” Wiggins said. “A lot of them have lost their jobs, and they are just struggling. There were many, many stories where our students were in households where no one had a job, and food was the last thing on the priority list — they were trying to keep the roof over their heads. So the fact that we almost gave out $7,000 worth of gift cards in three months is a really big accomplishment.”
The spike in both pantry usage and fundraising continued into the fall. The pantry received a $3,000 from a grant through the College President’s office and the Northwest Foundation, and Stop & Shop contributed another $2,000 in donations. While in fall 2019, the pantry fielded 20 student visits serving 35 adults and 20 children, that number shot up in Fall 2020: the pantry received 89 student visits, serving 201 adults and 122 children. 53 of these student visits were unique, one-time visits.
The individual student visits represent a 345 percent increase in student visits, a 474 percent increase in adults served, and a 510 percent increase in children served from the year prior, according to Wiggins.
All things considered, Wiggins and Bryda both say the support they’ve received for the pantry underscores their experience throughout their time at the college, marked by feelings of community and universal support.
“It’s family,” Wiggins said. “I got hired, and that was the first thing I said that I wanted to be a part of something that felt like family, where I could grow and big my roots in, and Northwestern was that close for me, it was the perfect fit.”
“I’ve seen a lot of people come and go,” Bryda said. “It’s a beautiful place to work. It’s challenging because we are so small… but community college truly is a different experience. I went to a community college where I was a factory worker. These are my people, we are family, and so it’s great that we can give back.”
For more information go to https://www.nwcc.edu/food-pantry/