Food Insecurity Forces Hunger Management, UT Outpost Aims to Mitigate

Written by Bismarck Andino.
Graphic by Emma Robinson.

Despite having access to eight dining locations throughout campus, some students at the University of Texas at Austin go to classes without eating a meal.

Jalesha Bass, communication and leadership and journalism double major, is one student whose eating patterns have been disrupted due to financial stress. Bass said her experience with food insecurity began during the spring 2018 semester when she ran out of money on her dining card while living in Jester West Residence Hall. 

“It really hit hard during finals just because I’d be hungry and taking exams,” Bass said. “I actually end [sic] up sleeping through one of my finals, so that’s when I went to the Student Emergency Services.” 

Student Emergency Services provides assistance to students like Bass through case management and emergency funds. These funds are awarded only once and can range from $25 to $300 per student. The funds do not require repayment, but students must provide documentation of financial hardship.   

Bass’ experience, however, was not an isolated case, but a broader issue at UT where 1 in 4 students have dealt with food insecurity, according to research from the Counseling and Mental Health Center. 

“That’s a huge percentage for a population of 55,000 plus students,” the coordinator of the Student Emergency Services-Food Pantry, Will Ross, said. “So, it’s a very real need unfortunately here.”

Between 2015-16 and 2016-17, Student Emergency Services saw a 28% increase in students with food-related needs. Meanwhile, from May 2018 to June 2019, UT Outpost, an on-campus food pantry, has served more than 1,000 students with food assistance, Ross said. However, no recent reports can confirm whether that number has shrunk or expanded since then. 

Raj Patel, a research professor from the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs, said food insecurity sometimes is related to the communities where students come from, some of which are forced to live in poverty. 

“The physical measurement of hunger it’s about whether you’re worried about it to the extent that you’ve actually had to skip meals in some cases,” Patel said. “There’s a grade of food insecurity that at its most extreme level is called food insecurity with hunger.”

Part of the problem, according to Bass, is that students don’t know how to manage their money when they first get to UT, especially given big sums of money. 

“UT used to have Dine In Dollars where [you would] get $1,600 for the year, but I thought it was for one semester, so I was spending money recklessly and eating at JCL,” Bass said. “At JCL you’ll get three chicken strips for $6.”  

Bass speaks of the limited meal plan offered in past years. Today, the university offers a meal plan with unlimited swipes in designated dining halls.

Although Bass said she worked two jobs that semester, all of her paychecks went toward housing and little money was left to pay for food. Bass said her close group of friends tried to make it through the semester by helping each other out, but that did not last long. 

“In fact, my roommates right now, we all used to sit in our room to eat noodles because all of us ran out of money,” Bass said. “I also had a bunch of friends who were broke … they were all eating noodles, too.”

Nonetheless, Bass said food insecurity is no longer about money management, but about managing hunger.

“I’ve trained my body to not eat until the afternoon because I was so used to having to ignore being hungry,” Bass said. “Sometimes life gets rough and you got no money, what else do you do?”

Patel said affordability, gentrification, and the lack of access to transportation also play a role in food insecurity because they prevent low-income families from having access to food. 

“It’s about the structures that make it very difficult for low-income households to be able to have regular lives,” Patel said. “What we need is to tackle the crisis of affordability, to tackle the crisis of low wages, of high rent and of discrimination against the poor.” 

In the meantime, UT Outpost offers 20 pounds of shelf-stable items once a month to each student experiencing food insecurity with no questions asked. No source of income is required, just a UT ID. 

Some of the food students can find include canned meats, soups, pasta, rice, cereal, produce, and personal care products, to name a few. The pantry has recently expanded to offering cold items like milk, eggs and bread. 

Bass said she is appreciative of the Student Emergency Services for helping and referring her to UT Outpost where she continues to go for food assistance every month. 

Bass now lives off campus on East Riverside Drive in a student apartment with three of her friends who, despite their struggles, stuck together. 

Biology junior Lexus Wilson donated 55 pounds of nonperishable food items to UT Outpost that was collected during a food drive held by Texas Sweethearts, an on-campus spirit organization. 

Wilson said Texas Sweethearts believes food insecurity is an issue at UT and that contributing to UT’s food pantry is a way of giving back to students who don’t have the resources to find food. 

“Bringing awareness to that issue is the first step, and I think what UT Outpost is doing is one of the ways that we can reach out to the community to help fix the problem,” Wilson said. 

Ross also said UT Outpost is moving toward educating students on how to shop and how to cook so that they can unlock the opportunity to have a fresh breakfast.  “Sure, eating ramen can be tasty, but if you’re in a situation where that is your choice, you’re omitting nutritious options,” Ross said. “If your body is starved, your brain is starved, and you can’t focus in your classroom.”

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