Houston Meals Financial institution, St. Thomas retains the nice going with its cellular meals distribution program
According to the Houston Food Bank, One in seven Southeast Texas residents is food insecure, which means that more than 1 million people do not have access to adequate daily nutrition. To counter this reality, the Food Bank has formed hundreds of partnerships across Houston to ensure individuals and families don’t go hungry. One of these partnerships is a mobile food distribution program at the University of St. Thomas.
“UST reached out to us last year and they were interested in becoming a Food Fellowship,” said Brandi McInnis, Educational Partnership Contact at Houston Food Bank.
Originally, the two organizations wanted to enroll food-insecure students to receive up to 60 pounds of food twice a month. Plans changed when Covid-19 hit the city.
With a mobile food distribution center up and running quickly, the Advancement Office and a supporting UST board member agreed to expand their services to the wider community during the crisis. The initiative started in May 2020.
“I drove to campus that day and knew nothing about it. But I was like, ‘I don’t know what it is, but I want to be part of it,’ ”says Dr. Jo Meier-Marquis, Faculty Member of Psychology, who now heads the university’s mobile board.
Once a month, food insecure people can drive through the distribution center for healthy foods such as fresh produce (some of which are locally sourced), cereals, chicken, tuna and milk. Students, faculty and staff alike serve as volunteers in unloading food in accordance with Covid-19 safety protocols.
Through this program, Meier-Marquis saw the opportunity to convey the very real problem of food insecurity to her students in a way that corresponds to the stated mission of the UST.
“As a Catholic university, I think it’s super important that you not only learn about Catholic intellectual tradition and Catholic social doctrine, but actually go out and get your hands dirty and be part of the solution.” She says.
Symposium meets with great response
First-year students at the university have to take part in a symposium in the fall semester, which is why Meier-Marquis has included voluntary work in the curriculum. As a result, an estimated 85 percent of the symposium’s freshman students turned up to help.
Although Meier-Marquis requested that they only have to show up two shifts in total – if Covid comfort permitted – she noted that most of them voluntarily shared their time well beyond that. The participating students signed up for shifts, but many of them chose to stay and work beyond their scheduled times to ensure that the distribution site remained adequately staffed. They also wanted to meet the people who supported their efforts.
In addition, some students asked discreetly whether they would like to use the services offered privately. It is difficult to estimate how many UST students live with food insecurity as a stigma prevents them from speaking up and asking for help.
Although the symposium has now ended, UST continues its partnership with the Houston Food Bank to serve the community monthly through its mobile food distribution service. Meier-Marquis and other professors use it as a tangible lesson on food insecurity in Houston and its implications for public health and safety, poverty and social injustice. She hopes that the privileged among them will not only share their resources when prompting their students to reflect on the realities, but also understand that their food insecurity classmates shouldn’t be shameful.