Carlos Rodriguez doubled back to the cooler that held a few shelves of water bottles, some milk, and other drinks. “I’m going to be good to myself today,” he said, grabbing a low-calorie, grape-flavored Gatorade. He returned to the checkout desk to continue filling out the FEMA Commodity Distribution sheet; his name, a signature, and the number six—the number of people in his household. Lastly, he checked “agree” to the box stating he genuinely needed the FEMA product and would not try to resell it.
One of 300 participants in the University of Houston-Downtown’s Food Scholarship program, Rodriguez is given $60 per credit hour to use in the Food For Change Market food pantry that is tucked away within the labyrinth-like campus. He takes nine hours, which puts him at a $540 credit, and though he has already exceeded that amount, no cash transaction is needed to pay for the drink in his hand. Rodriguez walks away free and clear, off to his next class.
“Never will students pay out of pocket, there is no cash exchange, we don’t keep cash here.” Tremaine Kwasikpui, director of student activities at UHD, explained. He along with Courtney Lundgren, director of enrollment communication and client relationship management, oversee the scholarship program and market. Food pantry items are wholly supplied by the Houston Food Bank, and their pricing is for tracking purposes only. The most expensive object is $6, which looks like a frozen ten-pound bag of turkey ham.
If a student, like Rodriguez, goes over his allotted amount within a semester, it’s okay. If a student not enrolled in the program wishes to shop, that’s okay too. If the parent of a student walks into the pantry to collect groceries, he or she is welcomed.
Amid all their other college costs, students can find themselves struggling to find the money for food. This issue, a quiet one, has gained volume in recent years as a handful of universities around the country have recognized the need and offered similar programs— though none in Texas are as involved as UHD.
In 2016, UHD Veterans Services conducted a student-wide survey to find out what was making it hard for them to graduate. It turned out that not having enough food was a factor. That was the beginning of an ongoing study tracking whether food scholarships will increase graduation rates, as well as reduce the time to completion, and improve grade point averages.
Of specific interest, too, were students who don't qualify for other types of income-based financial aid, but who are still in need and might slip through the cracks because they don't have enough to eat. UHD wondered if a food scholarship program, depending on donations from a food bank would be more successful, and replicable than a taxpayer-funded conditional cash transfer program.
Kwasikpui shared a portion of their study:
“Food is the closest commodity to cash; indeed, if the food that is provided by a food scholarship is the same as would be purchased, the rate of exchange between food and cash is one for one—a dollar’s worth of food is equivalent to a cash payment of a dollar. There is thus reason to believe that a food scholarship program (FSP) will mimic the success of [a] conditional cash transfer (CCT) program.”
During the think tank stage of the project, Kwasikpui and Lundgren looked to other campus food pantry programs at San Jacinto College, Houston Community College, and Texas Woman’s College for inspiration. Each of which had functioning pieces, but not quite the complete picture UHD wanted. Half of UHD students commute downtown from past the Beltway; meaning it doesn’t make sense for most of them to go home during a two-hour break in between classes. The more research they did, the more Kwasikpui and Lundgren felt the need for a daily, accessible program.
They quickly went to work finding a space, enlisting the help of a student team, procuring coolers and shelves. And then Hurricane Harvey hit and their project, on the tail-end of the planning process, was fast-tracked. Two weeks later, the Food For Change Market opened its doors.
“We started off with boxes of whole wheat spaghetti, five-pound sacks of potatoes, and canned green beans,” said Denia Contreras, one of the student staff members. A year later and room S292 is full of much more than pasta; containing different types of canned vegetables and fruits, proteins, and condiments. They’ve even expanded to household cleaners.
Lizett Rodriguez, a junior studying accounting, admitted that before the program she struggled to find affordable food options often times resorting to fast-food nearby. Now, pasta is her thing, but especially, chicken alfredo. Shopping at the food pantry, she’ll pick up chicken for her and beef for her family, which makes a big difference at home because leftovers equal lunch for the next day. “Now that we are able to cook more, I make sure to pack my lunch.”
This was the unexpected outcome of its program: food scholarship was trickling past the students and onto their families — a fringe benefit that UHD embraced. That day in particular, of the six students who had filled out the FEMA sheet, the majority had marked fives, sixes and even an eight for number of people in their household.
“There have been days I would skip a meal because I didn’t feel like buying food, or we didn’t have any groceries to cook anything,” said Angela Dawson, who spends nine hours a day on campus. The junior is studying fine arts as well as digital media and also works in the admissions office. Dawson often opts for vegetables while shopping for groceries that she brings home to her little brother and mother, a bus driver for Channelview Independent School District. “When I go to class hungry, it’s hard to focus.”
Kwasikpui is quick to credit the students that run the Food For Change Market. Looking over at Contreras, who had posted up in a director’s chair behind the check-out desk, he said, “We are adapting this program every day; if they have ideas, we try them.” She along with Amanda Howard, Cristian Contreras, and Ryan Sharp are as much responsible for the success of the food pantry as well as its growth. Together, they collaborate for improvement; such as introducing a limit system for hard to come by goods like deodorant. They conducted their own survey and discovered the program would benefit more students if the market’s hours were extended to 7 p.m.
UHD, along with the Houston Food Bank, continues to track the progress of the program, and hopes to create a model that can be replicated in universities throughout the country. In the spring, they will open the pantry to all students, though even now no one is turned away. With only one year of the food scholarship program under its belt, UHD was named Education Partner of the Year by the Houston Food Bank.
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Earlier, Rodriguez had pointed at the frozen bags of Chick-Fil-A Chicken Tortilla Soup stacked in the freezer. “My little brother really likes that,” he said smiling. As he made eye contact a long, vertical scar along his left eye became visible. “It’s taken me a little bit longer to graduate because of things that have happened that were out of my control.” Three years ago, a car accident slowed his pursuit of a degree in Interdisciplinary studies with a minor in psychology.
“Any benefits I can get from the University really helps me to focus on school,” he said. In a few weeks, he’ll finish this leg of his education, and then plans to get his master's in Social Work so he can obtain a license to practice therapy. Angela Dawson added: “The thought that the school even has this program, that they care, has kept me here as well.”