Food insecurity has many faces, according to Felix Fernandez, manager of the Tejano Food Pantry at the El Paso Community College Valle Verde Campus, and each face has a story.
Fernandez, an EPCC Campus Life employee since 2016, took charge of the food pantry in early September. He has helped many students with varying degrees of need, but the one that sticks out to him is the mother of three young children. The woman, a massage therapy student, was on her own. Her husband was in jail, and she had no income other than her financial aid.
He said the woman was a bit distrustful and embarrassed during her initial visit to the pantry’s corner offices on the second floor of Building C. She left with a box full of groceries and toiletries – and her dignity. The manager said he saw the gratitude in her eyes.
“She said, ‘You guys are amazing,’” said Fernandez of the woman who has become a regular customer. “She depends on us to give her family some nutrition. She knows we’re here for her.”
That woman is among the more than 700 students that the college’s food pantry has served since it opened in April 2017. EPCC leaders and their peers around the country understand how a lack of food and other essentials can impede a student’s path to degree completion.
A new report from the Center for Community College Student Engagement, a research initiative of the University of Texas at Austin, found that one in three community college students ran out of food and did not have the money to buy more food within 30 days of taking the center’s survey.
A quarter of students said they had low to very low food security. The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines food insecurity as a household-level economic and social condition of limited or uncertain access to adequate food. The percentages were higher for students of color, including Hispanics at 34%.
The report is based on a survey administered in spring 2021 to 82,424 community college students from 194 institutions across the United States. EPCC did not participate in the survey.
“Many colleges are doing fabulous work in supporting their students, but more must be done to identify the students who require assistance, destigmatize the needs they have, and connect them to the services that can bolster them,” said Linda García, CCCSE’s executive director.
Carlos Amaya, EPCC vice president of Student and Enrollment Services, said the college has set up a safety net of counselors, programs and external partners to help students deal with personal challenges.
Amaya said the first step is for the students to request help. The college promotes the food pantry through its website, social media and campus flyers, as well as word of mouth from staff and faculty members. He said EPCC’s key conduit of this kind of information is the campus counselors who can refer students to the best on- or off-campus resources for food, housing, or other necessary social services.
“The challenge is if they are not asking for the assistance,” Amaya said. “If they can’t find (help), they’re still on their own.”
Oscar Velasquez, the college’s districtwide counseling coordinator, said that his counselors talk with students during advising sessions to learn if they are dealing with any issues where the college or a community partner could help such as local food banks, the city of El Paso or the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
Velasquez, who works out of the college’s Northwest campus, said that the need for food assistance is constant, but he noted a post-pandemic dip in the number of food requests since students returned to face-to-face instruction. Some have said that it might be because the students have gone back to work, but he reasoned that the students tapped into other community programs.
“I think the government, the state, the city, everybody upped their game on food and housing,” Velasquez said.
Students also can request help through the StayStrong Student Emergency Fund, which is part of the El Paso Community College Foundation. Since 2020, the fund has doled out more than $300,000 to students for such things as food, child care, housing, transportation and academic technology.
“The needs always are greater than the funds available so that’s the challenge,” said Keri Moe, associate vice president of External Relations, Communications and Development.
Moe, who oversees the EPCC Foundation, welcomed the CCCSE report because it would generate discussion and promote understanding about student food and housing insecurity, especially among students of color, who the report found are most impacted by food insecurity.
The latest EPCC enrollment numbers from fall 2021 showed that 86% of its students were Hispanic, 2% were Black and 1% were Asian. Moe added that 36% of those students who requested emergency fund aid had dependent children.
Fernandez, the Tejano Food Pantry manager, said he expects more students to request help as the holidays get closer. He recently met with Amaya and Felix Hinojosa, interim director of Student Leadership and Campus Life, to discuss plans to move the pantry, currently 200 square feet, to a 600 square-foot space on the third floor of Building C during the upcoming winter break.
The larger space will have room for two commercial refrigerators so the pantry can offer fresh fruits, vegetables and proteins. It also will allow for more storage of dry goods.
Amaya added that while Valle Verde has the college’s only fully stocked pantry, each campus is trying to establish a smaller emergency operation through the campus dean’s office.
The walls of the current pantry are lined with shelves filled with dry food staples such as rice, beans and pastas, and canned fruits, soups, meats and fish, and vegetables. Name brands share space with generic. Another shelf has toiletries and personal hygiene items.
All of the items are donated by the college’s students, employees, the Student Government Association and community partners. Pantry managers use the monetary donations to purchase essential items such as bathroom tissue when the supply runs low.
Students must register to have access to the pantry, and fill out a form to alert the management of their food preferences as well as any dietary or allergy restrictions.
The pantry is open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays when classes are in session, but students can work with pantry employees to schedule an alternate time to shop or pick up groceries. Amaya said that while there are established steps students must follow to use the food pantry, the college tries to serve students with emergency needs immediately.
“We don’t want our students to jump through a bunch of hoops,” Amaya said. “We know the challenging times that we’re living in right now. We want to serve the students as quickly as possible.”
Daniel Perez covers higher education for El Paso Matters, in partnership with Open Campus.