When UTPA students are looking for a place to satisfy a hungry stomach they may tend to hit the Student Union or the on-campus dining hall. However, not all students are financially able to purchase food on or off-campus, according to UTPA officials.
The University Center held a ribbon-cutting ceremony Aug. 28 for a new student food pantry meant to help fight hunger. Many individuals helped put the vision of UTPA’s pantry into motion, including Associate Vice President and Dean of Students Mari Fuentes-Martin.
Starting Sept. 8 the student food pantry will be open eight hours a day, Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday. Students will be required to present their UTPA ID and fill out an online application form to receive non-perishable food items such as canned meats, vegetables and soups, no more than once a week.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service, more than 50 million people of all U.S. residents, are food insecure. Food insecurity is when someone is uncertain of when they will eat their next meal or when they are forced to buy less nutritious meals because of financial hardships. This number has increased from 36 million since the beginning of the recession in December 2007.
Fuentes-Martin, who is director of the pantry, explained the idea for the pantry was brought to faculty’s attention nearly four years ago when former UTPA President Robert Nelsen personally paid for three food-insecure individuals’ meal plans. Individual offices such as the Division of Student Affairs, started providing microwavable oatmeal and fresh coffee for students who weren’t able to purchase food on-campus.
According to the UTPA Dining Services webpage, a meal plan consisting of 17 meals per week costs $1,186 a semester.
Nearly one in five Valley households struggle to feed themselves at some point during the year, according to The Monitor. That’s about 246,000 men, women, seniors, and children, which averages to about one in two houses per block.
Employees felt an on-campus food pantry would be easier for students to access, instead of traveling to local food banks such as the Food Bank of the Rio Grande Valley, located in Pharr, which services Hidalgo, Willacy and Cameron counties.
Before the ribbon was cut, Nelsen, who stepped down as president Aug. 31, expressed nothing but gratitude to those who supported the pantry and went on to present it with its first donation of $1,000 from him and his wife Jody.
“I know what it is to be hungry…I lived in my car when I was in college. And I would buy a 19-cent hamburger and then I would go to work as a janitor,” Nelsen said. “I know what it is to go over to Bronc Village and see our kids living in their cars. Finally, they have a place to come to be able to get food. This is an amazing day.”
According to Feeding America, September is Hunger Action Month, a nationwide campaign mobilizing the public to take action on the issue of hunger. Starting Sept. 4, Feeding America will begin its campaign to bring the issue to America’s attention.
“Based on the demographic of our students, one in six are food insecure or hungry,” Fuentes-Martin said. “(UTPA) has a lot of services. If you’re sick you can go to (Student Health Services), if you’re dealing with emotional issues you can go the (Counseling and Psychological Center). We have a lot of services that help students with certain situations, and now if students are hungry they can come to the food pantry.”
Senior Laura Lynn Newton, a social work intern who will help operate the pantry, believes hunger is a problem not only at a national level but at a local one as well.
“I have neighbors who struggle with disabilities and they need somebody to help them,” the Mission native said. “I myself bring them sandwiches, chips and a drink because if I was in that position I would want somebody to do the same for me.”
Student Government Association President Alberto Adame said he has been part of this project since being elected in April. The 20-year-old explained that his committee’s role was to advise faculty about the pantry from the student perspective by attending weekly meetings every two weeks.
“We had to make sure this project was aimed at maximizing student success,” the finance major said. “There have been parts of my life where I have been hungry. I totally relate with the students who are going through food insecurity…so this is something that will bring students to succeed in their studies and make students feel like home here at UTPA.”
At the ribbon-cutting, SGA presented the Nelsens with matching student pantry aprons for making one last legacy at UTPA before University of Texas-Rio Grande Valley is inaugurated next fall.
“It’s always about our students and giving them the opportunity to be successful,” Nelsen said. “It is sad that there are students that don’t have the food they need. This food pantry is the right thing, UTPA is doing the right thing and will always do the right thing.”
The student food pantry will accept food donations that can be made directly to the Student Food Pantry, Counseling and Psychological Services, or Student Health Services. Cash donations will also be accepted by the food pantry as well as the Dean of Students office.