Cafeteria Woes at CUNY-If We Want Students Back on Campus, We Need to Provide Food, Not Vending Machines

CUNY Community Colleges in The Bronx Left Without Cafeteria Service

Only vending machines have offered food at two campuses since late September.

By Jonathan Custodio
Mar 4 5:00am EST

A Farmer’s Fridge offers salads and pasta bowls as an alternative to the closed cafeteria at Bronx Community College.

The CITY partners with Open Campus on coverage of the City University of New York.

At Bronx Community College, hungry students can find food only in vending machines since contractor A La Carte Menu Services Inc. abruptly ended on-campus dining service last year.  

While the school has since added a Farmer’s Fridge machine — whose options include $2.99 hardboiled eggs and $5.49 chocolate chia seed pudding — students seeking heartier or healthier fare have to go off campus to find it. Otherwise, they can settle for vending machines stocked with chips, candy and microwavable egg-and-cheese sandwiches and White Castle sliders. 

Containers of pasta salad sat in a Bronx Community College vending machine.
A Farmer’s Fridge offers salads and pasta bowls as an alternative to the closed cafeteria at Bronx Community College, Feb. 15 2024.


“It’s expensive. It’s wild. It won’t last you long,” 21-year-old film student Alex Ortiz said of the on-campus options since BCC’s cafeteria in the Roscoe Brown Student Center stopped serving food on September 29. 

That was just after the semester began and days after school administrators informed staff via email that, “A La Carte Menu Services, Inc. has withdrawn their cafeteria and catering services citing a lack of volume in sales.” 

The company, the email said, “informed our administration yesterday that they ‘can no longer operate at such a huge deficit.’”

A La Carte Menu Services, which did not respond to a request for comment, had been less than one year into a five-year contract to provide food services at BCC and Hostos, where it closed the cafeteria it opened last spring on a campus that had gone without one since the beginning of the pandemic, THE CITY previously reported. There are 6,839 students enrolled at BCC and 5,376 enrolled at Hostos, with many attending part time while juggling studies with jobs and caretaking. 

CUNY administrators ignored a request to provide a copy of that contract and did not say if the company would pay any penalty for its early withdrawal.  

“CUNY colleges continue to identify new dining partners, from full-service dining to grab and go stations, to provide students with a variety of food choices,” CUNY spokesperson Noah Gardy told THE CITY in a written statement. “And since CUNY is mostly a commuter system, students often have access to a variety of off-campus dining options.”

Gardy added that the “community colleges have introduced ready-to-eat meal options while the campuses develop an RFP for dining services,” with that request for proposal being released this spring. 

Still, having a range of food options on campuses matters. 

A 2022 survey by Healthy CUNY and the CUNY Office of Applied Research, Evaluation and Analytics found about 111,000 CUNY students experienced food insecurity. That’s two out of every five CUNY students, up from one in five in a 2018 survey, which found that students’ lack of convenient access to meals can contribute to food insecurity, a major inhibitor of college success.  

“If you are hungry, you’re not going to concentrate. There’s no way,” Hostos academic advisor Alba Lynch told THE CITY, adding that on-campus dining options should also include affordable and healthy food options. “It goes hand in hand. If your stomach is empty, how are you going to think about anything else other than food?”

The Bronx Community College cafeteria shuttered had been closed since the start of the fall semester.
The Bronx Community College cafeteria shuttered had been closed since the start of the fall semester, Feb. 15, 2024.

CUNY offers students access to 20 food pantries across the university system, including at BCC and Hostos. A food pantry offers free access to a collection of grocery items that can include rice, pasta and canned goods. On CUNY campuses, students can make appointments to pick up items or visit during select hours. 

In November 2022, Hostos Community College students demanded administrators reopen their cafeteria after it shuttered once the pandemic struck in the spring of 2020. Last year, Bronx Borough President Vanessa Gibson allocated $1.5 million to renovate Hostos’ cafeteria. 

Esther Rodriguez-Chardavoyne, senior vice president of administration and finance at Hostos, told The Bronx Times in July that only a few of the kitchen appliances were fully functional and that upgrades for the flooring and equipment in the cafeteria were required. 

Gardy told THE CITY that all the appliances at Hostos had been fixed. 

Though a city official told THE CITY that a certificate to proceed on renovation work at Hostos was issued January 26, college spokesperson Ivano Leoncavallo said “Hostos has not begun work on renovations.”

“There are many steps subsequent to the issuance of a CP [certificate to proceed] that need to happen before any work can be done,” Leoncavallo said in response. “That process is underway, and we are more eager for the project to begin than anybody.”

“In the meantime, we have installed Farmer’s Fridge vending machines that are restocked several times a week with fresh salads and sandwiches and other healthful food options while we proceed with the procurement of a new cafeteria vendor with our partner schools.”

At BCC, students are trying to make due without on-campus dining. 

Paula Safadi, a 19-year-old BCC biology student, said she is on campus four times a week, and usually tries to eat at home or pack meals. 

“But sometimes you don’t have time; you just want something quick,” she told THE CITY last week at Meister Hall, as she munched on a McChicken sandwich, nuggets and fries from a McDonald’s half a mile away.

Staffers were blindsided by A La Carte’s departure. 

“We don’t know really what happened. One day, the vendors just left, and they didn’t say anything. Basically, they were not making any profit,” Lynch said. “We were like, ‘what happened?’ So boom, the cafeteria is closed.”

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