Raising awareness for student hunger

Michelle Wulfson | The ItemSHSU event administration class FACS 3335 students Whitney Bunce, Icela Rollings, Pressley Huebel, Joseph Slaughter, Sydney Yglecias, Brady Stults, Zaria Laddie, Araceli Delosreyes and Kayley Neill raise awareness for the university's food pantry during National Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week.

Sam Houston State University event administration class FACS 3335 hosted an event raising awareness for the SHSU Food Pantry last week, in the midst of National Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week to ensure that no students go without this holiday season. 

On Thursday, the event administration class spent the day hosting a block party, complete with snacks, games and free t-shirts to raise awareness for the food pantry and Tripod’s Thrift, while breaking the negative stigma of receiving help.

“We’re really excited to partner with the class and very grateful that they took it upon themselves to create this event,” SHSU Food Pantry director Kathleen Gilbert said. “We’re really appreciative because this is how we’re able to serve the students of Sam Houston, is through donations and events like this.”

The SHSU Food Pantry opened in 2014 through the efforts of a small group of students at the university and has grown exponentially over time. The resource has since shifted from a dark closet with a single bookshelf of food and a “line of shame” full of embarrassed looks, to its own building where clients can find dignity in seeking help.

The SHSU Food pantry opened at its new and expanded location just weeks before the pandemic took the world by storm in 2020. At the time, close to 70% of students at the university reported experiencing some level of food insecurity. However, the need escalated dramatically as lock downs set in. 

“I think our numbers were really high at that time right at the beginning of COVID because a lot of people were getting laid off,” Gilbert said, noting the significance of the student population that makes up the majority of the service industry workforce in Huntsville.

“We had so many people that we just had to start packing boxes and handing it out to people and we were completely wiped out,” SHSU Food Pantry student worker Thomas Taylor said.

To meet the demand, the food pantry signed an agreement with the Houston Food Bank that they would open to the general public, however, students remain their first priority due to the limited resources available to them in Walker County.

“The unfortunate thing with food banks is they usually require certain requirements to access them, you have to be paid a certain minimum or have no employment, but here, we always give people stuff no matter the circumstance,” Taylor said.

One of the largest hindrances for students accessing food bank resources is that many of Walker County’s food banks require proof of a paycheck stub and a form of ID that shows them to be a Walker County resident. However, most students’ licenses are not of the area, making it nearly impossible for them to receive help outside of the food pantry.

“We’re set up as more of a life happens, something has happened, busted car, unexpected fee, medical expense, so they come here just to help them get to that next paycheck,” Gilbert said. “We have very few students who are dealing with super high food insecurity, though we do have some regulars.”

As of now, the food pantry has at least 100 students who are known regulars that are believed to be somewhat dependent on the resource. This could be in part due to the university’s acquisition of CARES and CRRSA funding to help make ends meet for students that would normally struggle. 

“I’m curious to see what food insecurity is going to be like when that funding is no longer available next fall,” Gilbert said.

Operating as a strictly donation based organization, monetary funds are used to purchase fresh and shelf stable foods, spending at least $4,000 to host two distributions each month, during which time, clients can shop the grocery store setting with few limitations on what can be taken.

While donations certainly help in feeding the university’s food insecure population, awareness for their services is the organization’s greatest asset.

“People think they can’t volunteer or they don’t have the money, but we always say that the number one thing that you can do for us is to bring awareness of our services because you just don't know who needs it,” Gilbert said. “You can’t see hunger, you can’t see food insecurity, necessarily, it’s not something that is easily expressed like feeling sick, so bringing awareness is absolutely the number one thing anyone can do.”

A study led by a researcher at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health found that food insecurity among college students is associated with lower college graduation rates and lower chances of obtaining a bachelor’s or advanced degree. In order to ensure success in their education, students are encouraged to utilize the resource, no matter their financial status.

“A lot of students don’t believe that they’re worthy of help because they don’t think they’re as bad off as other people, but they are really struggling and they could use the help, they just think other people are worse off so they’ll save it for other people,” Taylor said. “So we always try to help their morale when they come in, reassure that this is normal, this is a safe space, nobody is going to judge you here for trying to get help and we try to tell other people that it is for everybody and not just those struggling.”

The SHSU Food Pantry is located at 1108 17th Street in Huntsville, on the Sam Houston State University campus. The next distribution dates are scheduled for Dec. 1 and 2 from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

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