In-Depth

Houston Colleges Offer Food Scholarships to Help Students Ease Food Insecurity

Since the student market opened at Texas Woman’s University in January, about 80 students receive groceries twice a month, just as long as they stay in school

Since it opened in January 2018, the student market at Texas Woman's University provides about 80 students - mostly in graduate programs - with 60 pounds of food a month.
Since it opened in January 2018, the student market at Texas Woman’s University provides about 80 students – mostly in graduate programs – with 60 pounds of food a month.

On a recent Monday afternoon at Texas Woman’s University in the Medical Center, it was delivery day. It’s always a little bit of a surprise what arrives from the Houston Food Bank.

Graduate student Torrey Alexis unpacked boxes and found lettuce for garden salads, a whole mixture of fruits and frozen sausages.

“And bags of rice — awesome!” he said.

After class, Alexis, 24, will hand out maroon tote bags loaded with 30 pounds of groceries to dozens of fellow grad students. It’s part of his masters project in nutrition. He’s collecting food diaries and surveys on students’ food needs.

The market is also personal. Alexis takes home two bags of food for himself.

“I’m going to say it has helped me a lot, because it’s a lot of money — like I’m an out-of-state student, so a lot of my fees goes to out-of-state tuition. And so it’s kind of like money is very tight,” Alexis said.

Last semester, between moving from Louisiana, starting graduate school and then being out of work during Hurricane Harvey, Alexis had to skip meals sometimes to pay bills. Or he made sure he had healthy snacks to keep him going.

In fact, 20 percent of students at TWU have experienced food insecurity. That’s almost as much as the national average. A recent study found that over a third of U.S. college students went hungry over the last year.

It all means the stereotype of the poor college student surviving on Ramen noodles isn’t a joke for a growing number of young people. And community colleges and universities like Texas Woman’s have started to offer a new kind of scholarship — for food — together with the Houston Food Bank.

Deb  Unruh, assistant director of student life at TWU, surveyed students in 2016.

Their response: “They were cutting back on the size of meals, they were skipping meals altogether, they weren’t eating as much food as they thought they should and that money was running out at the end of the month, so they just couldn’t buy food,” she recounted.

Unruh wasn’t totally surprised. For a while, she’d noticed students scarfing down snacks at the student life center, where they ate very quickly and ate a lot.

Deb Unruh surveyed students at TWU in 2016 after she noticed students regularly scarfed down snacks at the student life center - as if it was their main meal. Unruh discovered 20 percent of students at TWU's Houston campus in the Texas Medical Center experienced food insecurity, not knowing where their next meal would come from.
Deb Unruh surveyed students at TWU in 2016 after she noticed students regularly scarfed down snacks at the student life center – as if it was their main meal. Unruh discovered 20 percent of students at TWU’s Houston campus in the Texas Medical Center experienced food insecurity, not knowing where their next meal would come from.

It’s all led to this partnership with the Houston Food Bank. Carolyn Moore, a professor in nutrition and food sciences at TWU, helped make the connection with the Houston Food Bank. She also funded — with some of her own money — a renovation to house the new student market, adding new refrigerators and a freezer to keep produce fresh. 

Since the market opened in January, about 80 students receive groceries twice a month, just as long as they stay in school.

“The reason that we call it a food scholarship is because we’re looking to tie this to outcomes,” said Harry Hadland with the Houston Food Bank.

It’s not just, ‘Hey, here’s some food, go be well with your life.’ It’s, ‘Here’s some food, let this help you maintain your way through with whatever program you’re pursuing,” Hadland said.  

Some say rising tuition and housing costs mean more students resort to these programs. But it’s a complicated issue and there could be other factors.

Carolyn Moore, professor of nutrition and food science at TWU, donated over $10,000 of her own money to build the student market at TWU. She's advising graduate student Torrey Alexis on his masters project that's monitoring how the food scholarships impact students' nutrition.
Carolyn Moore, professor of nutrition and food science at TWU, donated over $10,000 of her own money to build the student market at TWU. She’s advising graduate student Torrey Alexis on his masters project that’s monitoring how the food scholarships impact students’ nutrition. They both volunteer to help organize food for students on distribution day.

Still, it’s prompted the Houston Food Bank to expand its food scholarships. Hadland said that they have student markets at six colleges so far, including San Jacinto Community College and the University of Houston-Downtown. And the nonprofit will open a ninth student market in Baytown at Lee College in the fall. Together, there are about 1,000 students in Houston higher education institutions on these food scholarships.

At Texas Woman’s University, both administrators and students said that the food scholarships have made a difference. Unruh said that students seem more confident and that fills her with gratitude.

“I mean, goodness! What a gift of humanity one to another, honest to goodness,” she said.

Alexis hopes his masters project proves that his peers get more calories and better nutrition, because of this program. He’ll share the research with the Houston Food Bank. They won’t be able to tell if it improves students’ academics, but Alexis said that already his own stress is already way down.

“I don’t really have to worry about food as much now. I have so much cereal at my house right now, it’s ridiculous,” he said.

That means he can focus on work at a local hospital and class, so he can graduate with his masters in May 2019. 

 

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Laura Isensee

Laura Isensee

Education Reporter

Laura Isensee covers education for Houston Public Media, including K-12 and higher education. Previously, she was a staff reporter at The Miami Herald and contributed to South Florida’s NPR affiliate. Her work has also appeared in The Dallas Morning News, Reuters and Clarín in Argentina. Laura has won awards for...

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