Barry Saunders

A late chancellor’s lasting legacy for hungry students – Saunders

Debra Saunders-White was named as the new N.C. Central University chancellor during a University of North Carolina Board of Governors meeting February 8, 2013 at the C.D. Spangler Jr. building in Chapel Hill.
Debra Saunders-White was named as the new N.C. Central University chancellor during a University of North Carolina Board of Governors meeting February 8, 2013 at the C.D. Spangler Jr. building in Chapel Hill. News and Observer file photo

She hadn’t even been sworn in yet, but at a dinner welcoming Debra Saunders-White to N.C. Central University three years ago, I told her, “Holy mackeral. I sure wish you’d been chancellor when I was in school.”

Saunders-White had mentioned that a priority of hers was getting a food pantry operating for hungry students on campus. As a former hungry college student, I wanted to shout Halleluyer about what I think is one of the greatest innovations I’ve ever heard an administrator introduce onto a college campus.

Saunders-White, who died of cancer last week, deserves posthumous praise for providing more than just book learnin’ for students at NCCU.

“We opened it during the week of her installation” as chancellor, school spokeswoman Ayana Hernandez said of the food pantry.

Jason M. O’Briant, NCCU’s director of the Didactic Program in Dietetics, said the purpose of the food pantry “is to mitigate hunger among students, faculty and staff. We actually allow you to shop and pick out foods from different categories. ... The meals are designed for a family of four for about two to three meals. Anyone can come at any time and take those bags, and we have an after-hours station that always has meals.”

Oh happy day, because there is no hunger like that late-night “I’ve got to study for this exam, but my mind’s playing tricks on me” hunger.

It’s OK if you never associated higher education with hunger. Most of us figure that anyone who can afford to set foot on a college campus these days must be rolling in dough, literally and figuratively.

Tain’t necessarily so, though. Studenting while starving is a real thing. The national hunger-relief charity Feeding America estimated this year that one of every seven college students goes hungry. A study at the University of California-San Diego revealed that 35 percent of its students said they’d had to skip a meal for financial reasons.

Even at Duke, a blue-blood university where, some presume, being poor means you have to drive your own BMW or make your own spring break reservations at the Fontainebleau, students have access to a food pantry.

“Everybody who goes to Duke isn’t rich,” Nanika Rhodes told me, refuting a popularly held misconception. Rhodes, coordinator of building support services, said the pantry is “located in a student break room. It isn’t very big, and it only has soup, canned items, Oodles of Noodles and crackers, that kind of thing.”

I didn’t tell her that when your tummy is growling so loudly that it’s drowning out the professor’s voice, Oodles of Noodles can be as delectable as a T-bone steak.

Every now and then, I’ll remember some poem from college by one of those dudes with three names, or I’ll correctly answer a couple of questions on “Jeopardy!” and feel my many years of college weren’t wasted, or I’ll remember that it was Plato who said “Necessity is the mother of invention.”

Much of what I learned in college is in a seldom-visited storage unit in the back of my mind. The one thing you’ll never forget, though, is being hungry.

Much of what I learned, however, is in a seldom-visited storage unit in the back of my mind.

The one thing you’ll never forget about college, though, is being hungry. That’s why I think Plato was full of Beanee Weenees. The true mother of invention is hunger, which is why my pals and I were at our most creative when trying to secure some sustenance. We attended the wakes of strangers – forgive us for that, Lord – where people seldom ask who you are before offering you a plate, or Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, because they always had coffee and doughnuts.

So what if they were those dry, cakey, flavorless bad boys: at least they were filling, and after four or five, your sated belly couldn’t tell the difference between filet mignon or a doughnut.

The worst – or most creative – thing we ever did to get something to eat was to falsely report to the campus’s kindly but not-terribly-ept nighttime security guard, Mr. Williams, that we thought we saw someone sneaking around in the cafeteria one night. When he whipped out his pistol – never loaded – to go check out the situation, we told him we cared too much for his safety to let him go in alone. Therefore, at great personal risk, we would all go in with him to confront the dangerous burglars.

As we crept around in the dark, a fellow student named Hubert peeled off and grabbed what was left of a giant sheet cake that had been served for dinner that day and fled back to the dorm. We feasted that night, and while I’d like to say that guilty consciences detracted from our enjoyment, they didn’t. Each of us had made a deal with our conscience beforehand: if it didn’t bother us, we wouldn’t bother it.

Thanks to the enlightenment and concern of Debra Saunders-White during her tragically short tenure, NCCU students won’t have to resort to such measures for a meal. Nor will they have to go to class and bed hungry – or to an AA meeting just to get some cakey doughnuts. What a wonderful legacy – addressing hunger on campus.

O’Briant said NCCU alumni and churches have donated generously to keep the pantry stocked – although it’s empty now, owing, perhaps, to Thanksgiving. Anyone wishing to donate can drop food off between 1 p.m. and 6 p.m. Wednesdays at the Dent Human Sciences Building. When the campus needs to, he said, it buys food from the Food Bank of Central & Eastern NC.

To learn how to help, call O’Briant at 919-530-7139.

The motto of the United Negro College Fund is “A mind is a terrible thing to waste.”

Well, when you’re hungry at a Negro college or any other kind, a can of Vienna sausages is a wonderful thing to taste.

Opening statement by Debra Saunders-White, 11th Chancellor of NC Central University as she gives her installation address in McDougald-McLendon gymnasium Friday, April 4, 2014.

Barry Saunders: 919-836-2811, @BarrySaunders9