According to the Houston Food Bank, one out of every seven residents of Southeast Texas is food insecure, meaning more than 1 million people go without access to proper daily nutrition. To help combat that reality, the Food Bank has established hundreds of partnerships throughout Houston to ensure individuals and families don’t go hungry. One of those partnerships is a mobile food distribution program at the University of St. Thomas.
“Last year, UST reached out to us and they were interested in becoming a food scholarship partner,” says Brandi McInnis, education partnerships liaison at Houston Food Bank.
Originally, the two organizations wanted to enroll food-insecure students to receive up to 60 pounds of groceries twice a month. Plans changed when Covid-19 hit the city.
Because it doesn’t take very long to set up a mobile food distribution center, the Advancement Office and a supportive UST board member agreed to expand their services to the larger community in its time of crisis. The initiative launched in May 2020.
“I was driving to campus that day, and I didn’t know anything about it. But I was like, ‘I don’t know what that is, but I want to be part of that,’” says psychology faculty member Dr. Jo Meier-Marquis, who now leads the university’s mobile food bank.
Once each month, people experiencing food insecurity may drive through the distribution center for healthy foodstuffs, like fresh produce (some of which is locally sourced), grains, chicken, tuna, and milk. Students, faculty, and staff members alike serve as volunteers unloading food, following Covid-19 safety protocols.
Through this program, Meier-Marquis saw an opportunity to teach her students about the very real problem of food insecurity in a way that aligns with UST’s stated mission.
“Being a Catholic university, I think it’s super important that not only do you learn about the Catholic intellectual tradition and learn about Catholic social teaching, but you actually get out there and get your hands dirty and you’re part of the solution,” she says.
Symposium produces great response
Freshmen at the university are required to take a symposium in the fall semester, so Meier-Marquis incorporated volunteer work into the syllabus. As a result, an estimated 85 percent of freshman symposium students showed up to help.
Although Meier-Marquis required them to only show up for two shifts total—Covid comfort permitting—she notes how most of them voluntarily shared their time well beyond that. Participating students signed up for shifts, but many of them decided to stay and work past their scheduled times to make sure the distribution site remained properly staffed. They also wanted to meet the people their efforts supported.
More, some students themselves have discreetly inquired about taking advantage of the available services in private. It’s hard to gauge exactly how many UST enrollees live with food insecurity, as there remains a stigma preventing them from speaking up and asking for help.
Although the symposium has since ended, UST continues its partnership with Houston Food Bank to feed the community through its mobile food distribution service on a monthly basis. Meier-Marquis and other professors are using it as a tangible lesson in food insecurity in Houston and its impact on public health and safety, poverty, and social injustice. She hopes that, in challenging her students to reflect on the realities, the privileged among them will not only share their resources, but also understand that there should be no shame attached to their classmates who contend with food insecurity.