Hungry for Change
Learn how Texas A&M University is working to end food insecurity in Aggieland and beyond.
- Written by Lydia Hill ’21
- Illustration by Mike Waraksa
- Jun. 14, 20215 min read
Whether it’s grabbing a meal with friends or eating your favorite dish after a long day, food can provide enjoyment and comfort. But for the millions of people around the world who are food insecure, it also brings uncertainty and stress.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) defines food insecurity as a lack of consistent access to adequate food for active, healthy living. Rather than simply being hungry, food insecurity includes the inability to purchase nutritious foods, which can cause health problems such as diabetes and high blood pressure. USDA studies show that the percentage of food-insecure households in the U.S. declined to a 20-year low of 10.5% in 2019. After the COVID-19 pandemic began, however, this number jumped back to 20%.
Food insecurity is also a problem for many college students. According to Texas A&M University surveys, 25 to 30% of students had to eat less or skip meals at some point in college because of insufficient financial resources. A lack of adequate food can also negatively affect students by causing higher stress levels, difficulty sleeping and lower grades.
As a land-grant research university with a core value of selfless service, Texas A&M has a critical role in ending food insecurity. Here are some of the ways Aggies are combating this issue and working to ensure food for all.
The 12th Can
Founded in 2013, The 12th Can aims to eliminate hunger at Texas A&M and raise awareness of food insecurity in college communities. The student-run pantry provides food to students, faculty and staff in need of assistance and has served more than 300,000 pounds of food to 4,500 Aggies. The pantry obtains canned goods, fresh produce and frozen meats through drives and donations and offers clients a replicated shopping experience.
“Often, students resist coming to the food pantry because of the stigma around accepting help,” explained Executive Director Kelly Villarreal ’21. “The more we can model the food pantry like a grocery shopping experience, the more we can decrease the stigma and encourage people to reach out.”
Meals for Vets
With approximately 2 million veterans lacking consistent access to adequate food, Texas A&M teamed up with the statewide Meals for Vets program in 2019 to provide qualifying student veterans with five free meals per week through the university’s dining halls. “If we can take one concern off their plate by providing meals, we help set them up for academic success,” said Monteigne Long ’02, program coordinator at the College Station campus and assistant director of The Texas A&M University System’s Office of Veteran Services.
Since its founding, the program has served 20 veterans, increased to three Texas A&M System locations—College Station, Texas A&M-Commerce and Tarleton State University—and is in the process of expanding to the Corpus Christi, Galveston, Kingsville, San Antonio and Texarkana campuses.
When Texas A&M sociology professor Dr. Sarah Gatson first planted an herb garden at her home in 2011, she also planted the seed that grew into the research and food gardening project Everybody Eats. The service-learning-based initiative brings together Texas A&M faculty, students and local community members to study food insecurity in the Brazos Valley and encourage others to produce food in their own backyards.
“Food is a basic human need and, especially at a public land-grant institution, it should be an explicit part of our research-extensive mission that we implement with equity and accountability,” Gatson said.
Since it launched in 2013, the project has installed more than 50 raised beds and container gardens, including at the Boys and Girls Club of Brazos Valley; the Bryan Women, Infants and Children Clinic; and the Howdy Farm on campus.
First Year Eats
Administered by Texas A&M’s LAUNCH Office, which provides students with research and academic enrichment opportunities, First Year Eats equips students to tackle food insecurity by providing recipes and ingredients and teaching them how to cook while living in residence halls. Dr. Sumana Datta, LAUNCH executive director, helped found the program in 2018 after learning that many students’ meal plans run out before semester-end, leaving them with few options.
“Once students understand how to cook, including how easy and fast it can be, they can continue to cook even after they leave the residence halls,” she explained. “It’s a skill we can give them.”
By helping students improve their eating habits, the program also impacts their grades, with students in the program scoring one-fourth of a grade point higher than peers who did not participate. Although First Year Eats is currently offered only to learning community members living in Clements Hall, Datta hopes to expand it across campus and inspire similar programs at universities throughout the nation.
The Hunger Consortium
In 2018, LAUNCH assembled Texas A&M’s food-related resources into a united force against food insecurity: The Hunger Consortium. Through the initiative, faculty, staff, students and community members involved in food production, management or research can connect to enhance their efforts in feeding the world. From holding its inaugural Hunger Consortium Expo to helping the Texas A&M Urban Farm United launch its campus tower gardens, the consortium is further shaping the conversation around food insecurity solutions.
“There are so many ways you can address food insecurity,” Datta said. “You can get involved no matter your major, but different people only have pieces of the solution. By bringing together everyone interested with all their different backgrounds and expertise, we can think of everything that can be done on this issue. It takes a family—the Aggie family. But we can do it.”