Hunger is often a hidden problem in America. In a state like Texas, where even the portion sizes seem bigger, the issue can seem invisible to the average observer.
Yet 319,290 residents are considered food insecure in Tarrant County alone, according to a survey done by Feeding America.
“I knew hunger existed in the U.S., [but] the magnitude was really shocking,” first-year history major Nikki Nguyen said.
Nguyen was part of a group of seven students and three faculty members who spent Spring Break learning about the issue of hunger.
In the past, the Spring Break service program focused on topics such as homelessness. This year, however, the Center for Community Involvement and Service Learning was inspired by Hunger Week, which it produced in partnership with the Office of Religious and Spiritual Life.
“We had so much planned for Hunger Week, and we didn’t think we could fit it all in one week. So we expanded it and just made the whole semester focus on hunger,” Irene Arellano, assistant director of Community Involvement and Service-Learning, said.
The group was introduced to the issue through the documentary “A Place at the Table,” which followed the struggles of those dealing with food insecurity in America.
According to the USDA, food insecurity involves not having access to enough food on a daily basis.
David Aftandilian, assistant professor of anthropology, said the existence of food deserts contributes to increased levels of food insecurity. According to the American Nutrition Association website, a food desert is an area with little access to healthy whole food providers.
Aftandilian spoke with the Spring Break group about how to identify these areas and brainstorm solutions, such as mobile pantries.
“I’ve learned what a food desert is. It’s kind of crazy that we have those in our own backyards and we don’t even know,” first-year journalism major Ernest Dominick said.
To investigate the problem in Tarrant County, the group visited several food banks and pantries to learn about their programs and help sort and distribute food.
“It was really just eye-opening to see all these things going on,” Nguyen said. “We got to visit the food bank, the food pantries, we got to see how these people are all coming together to help all these people in need. It was just so fulfilling to be a part of that.”
Representatives from government programs such as Women, Infants and Children (WIC), the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and the Texas Hunger Initiative spoke to students about their approaches to tackling the issue of hunger. Then students proposed their own ideas.
“I think it’s been a huge first step for me to learn about this issue, and I will do bigger things to help in the future,” first-year political science major Samira Jubis said.
Jubis, an international student from El Salvador, said the Spring Break program was her first experience with community service in the United States.
Others in the group, including Dominick, Nguyen and Nguyen’s sister, Thi, are part of the university’s Community Scholars Program. They said they plan on volunteering with local hunger relief programs as part of their required service.
Thi Nguyen said she saw the importance in their work as someone who comes from a similar background as those she was helping.
“It’s really important because the community has molded me into the person I am today and giving back is something I look forward to and will do in my future,” she said.
The group ended the four-day experience by helping out at the Tarrant Area Food Bank’s community garden at Ridglea Christian Church.
“I’ve never physically harvested fruits and vegetables, so that was really fun,” Dominick said.
The church is home to associate chaplain Allison Lanza, whose experience working with homeless ministries has informed her view on hunger.
“I’ve worked with folks who experience homelessness for a long time now. Many of them who experience homelessness also experience hunger. So I’ve gotten to really meet people who face that experience and become passionate about ways we can end it,” she said.
Of the twenty students initially interested, Arellano said she was happy with the seven who attended the program.
“We accomplished what we wanted. We wanted to start small and build it,” she said. “We wanted to just plant the seed, and that’s what I think we did, planted the seed.”
To learn more about the issue of hunger in Texas visit the Texas Hunger Initiative’s website.