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According to data from Hillel International, there are over 4,000 Jewish students at Queens College, making up 25% of the student body, which is the seventh largest Jewish population among public colleges. For generations, QC has been known as a place with a strong and engaged Jewish community where it is easy to be a Jewish college student. Over the past five years, that reputation has diminished following the closure of the Dairy Stop, the kosher food storefront on campus, without an adequate replacement.
Since then, kosher food options on campus have been grab-and-go, poor quality, high cost, and inconsistently available. Moreover, the closing of the Dairy Stop has deprived the Jewish community of an important social center. Dairy Stop was legendary for fostering a unique sense of community among Jews at Queens College. Even Jews of other CUNYs would travel to hang out at Dairy Stop. My father, who attended Brooklyn College, remembers many Jewish students, himself included, traveling to QC to socialize at Dairy Stop. As QC alum Taylor Kornstein (18’) told The Knight News in 2016, “The Dairy Stop was more than just a food option, but a community.” Since its closure, the QC Jewish community, and the CUNY Jewish community as a whole, has been weakened by a lack of a kosher space at QC.
Since the closing of the Dairy Stop, there have been several attempts to bring better kosher options to campus, none of which provided the consistent quality, and affordable fare that is needed. One attempt to address this gap was made this Fall by junior Maayan Sandowski.
A commuter last year, Sandowski would go long days on campus with no kosher options for lunch other than grab-and-go sandwiches which weren’t always there and were extremely expensive. This meant that some days, when she couldn’t pack food from home, she wouldn’t eat. Sandowski wasn’t alone. She told The Knight News, “When I was talking to my friends about how part of my timing was preparing my food and, they said, ‘Oh yeah I sometimes just don’t eat.’” Sadowski thought this situation was ‘crazy.’
After talking to more students and realizing that this was a major issue, she worked with Queens College Chabad, an off-campus organization, in the Fall to launch Cafe Chabad. This program provided subsidized kosher lunches to students once a week from a local restaurant to serve as a stopgap solution for student-friendly food. However, according to Sandowski, this venture was not sustainable in the long run, and ended after the semester due to the challenges of organizing the program saying, “I didn’t feel like it was fair for my grades to suffer, or taking [time] away from other jobs for something that should be on campus.”
For Queens College, which positions itself as a leader in the fight for campus food equity with President Frank Wu prominently campaigning for the Hunger-Free Campus Act, ignoring the food equity needs of QC’s Jewish students makes its activism on food equity ring hollow.
This is especially notable as Jenna Citron Schwab, Executive Director of Queens College Hillel, told The Knight News that almost half of CUNY Hillel students experience food insecurity. According to data from a 2018 survey shared with The Knight News, 44% of CUNY Hillel students experience food insecurity. Of those students, 56% were classified as having ‘high’ food insecurity. Moreover, a third of CUNY Hillel students reported being hungry, but not eating due to not having enough money, and 42% of students reported relying on food from Hillel events due to financial reasons. Rabbi Shlomo Brukirer, a rabbi at QC sees this firsthand, “We have a lot of students in financial situations that are not exactly solid and they struggle with getting food that can help them go through the day.”
A common response to the issue of kosher food on campus is to mention the plethora of kosher options from restaurants on Main Street. However, for a student to take advantage of this requires a minimum of a 45-minute trip between walking to and from Main Street, then waiting for and eating food at a restaurant. Considering that QC is a commuter school, for most students, this is an extra 45 minutes of commuting to lunch on top of commutes that can range from 30 minutes to two hours to campus each way. Moreover, the options at these restaurants are quite expensive and not reasonable for a college student on a budget to utilize every day as a consistent source of sustenance.
In fairness, in response to a query from The Knight News, Joseph Loughren, QC Vice President for Budget and Finance stated, that, “Kosher food is recognized as an important component of student life and serves dietary needs for a large number of our students. With the amount of activity on campus increasing, we expect that our current discussions with a Kosher vendor will materialize in the opening of a location within Q Café.”
If by ‘location,’ the reopening of an affordable and quality kosher vendor like the Dairy Stop used to be, this would be a game changer for Jewish students. Even quality, and affordable, grab-and-go sandwiches would be a win for students. However, the actions and statements of the college over the past five years lend cause for doubt. At a college with one of the largest kosher-observant populations in the country, there have been no hot kosher options for over five years. Moreover, even if the college reopens a kosher vendor or improves the quality of grab-and-go options, there is no guarantee of affordable options. Loughren told The Knight News that while prices are set by the food service vendor, “…[the] Food Service Committee of the Auxiliary work with our vendor to ensure that pricing is as manageable for students as possible.” Considering the expensive pricing and low quality of the current grab-and-go options which spurred the current frustrations, the assurances of ‘manageable pricing’ rings hollow.
While Queens College remains a strong option for many Jewish students, its status as the preeminent option may no longer hold. In the absence of the unique community built by the presence of, or indeed even a reliable source of quality and affordable kosher food, I have seen more and more Jewish students choose other schools.
When Rabbi Brukirer gets asked by prospective students and school administrators about the campus, they are surprised that Queens College lacks kosher options, “For the many students who want kosher food [as a part of their college experience] it’s not a great look,” Rabbi Brukirer said. Likewise Schwab said, “When I meet with prospective parents…the lack of affordable kosher food on campus has made conversations harder when we’re talking about why Queens is a great place to be a Jewish student.”
The Jewish community at Queens College is frustrated and tired that at a college located in one of the most vibrant Jewish communities in the city, something as fundamental as affordable kosher food continues to be a challenge. The Jewish community is tired of being told how QC deeply values its large Jewish community, while it deceptively touts the long-closed Dairy Stop as a kosher option on its rebuilt food services site, and latest undergraduate catalog (QC, in a statement to The Knight News, placed the responsibility for accurately updating the food services page entirely on food service provider Chartwells).
Jewish students deserve to be able to share in the community-building that comes over a good meal, and not feel excluded or out of place in the Dining Hall. Jewish students deserve food equity and the ability to have affordable, quality food to get them through their day. Jewish students should be able to come to Queens College and not have to make sacrifices because of their faith. If Queens College is going to present itself as an advocate for a Hunger-Free Campus, it should be a Hunger-Free Campus for all students, not a Hunger-Free Campus for all students except Jews.