By Calvin Streeter, PhD
In 2014, the Steve Hicks School of Social Work at The University of Texas at Austin established a food pantry to support social work students who needed supplemental food assistance. Originally established through personal funding from faculty, staff and students, the food pantry consisted of cabinets filled with non-perishable food items located in the school’s student lounge. Assistant dean for undergraduate programs, Cossy Hough, said “when faculty heard our students were dealing with food insecurity, they got to work. Our social work student council and our staff and faculty teamed up to create a food pantry for our students. This food pantry is a microcosm of the grassroots level change we believe in.”
When the Coronavirus pandemic forced the university to close, students were unable to access the school’s food pantry. Like students across the country, our students were forced to quickly adapt to a new learning environment while being displaced, laid off or furloughed, forced to self-isolate, and in some cases care for immunocompromised family members. It became clear very early in the pandemic to the school’s administration and its Social Work Advisory Council that they needed to provide immediate support to students experiencing food shortages and financial issues as a result of COVID-19.
In March 2020, pantry operations shifted in response to the pandemic. A committee of faculty, staff and students was formed to plan and fulfill bi-weekly, socially distanced food distribution events for students. In less than two weeks after the campus closed, the committee met to prepare more than 20 packages filled with non-perishable food items such as beans, rice and pasta, for the first student food pick-up. The packages were set out in front of the school so students could anonymously pick it up on March 31, 2020.
Food variety expanded with support from the greater UT Austin community. For example, an officer with the UT Police Department donated boxes of non-perishable food items and members from the Social Work Advisory Council gave monetary donations and collected additional donations from local businesses to restock the food pantry. As a result, student food packages gained additional non-perishable food items, along with fresh produce such as lettuce, tomatoes, apples, oranges, bananas, bread, dessert, meat and frozen foods. I addition, a list of recipes and cooking tips was developed and additional resources for food access were made available to students.
The food pantry fed 61 unique social work students and their families during the summer of 2020 and student food distributions continued throughout the 2020-2021 academic year. Through the end of April 2021, 93 unduplicated individual students had received food at least once and 24 students received food packages 4 or more times during the academic year. These numbers included 21 large families, which were provided with double food boxes. A total of 314 food packages have been distributed through the pantry since the pandemic began.
When one Social Work Advisory Council member was asked about her involvement with the food pantry, she said “The school is full of people who live what they teach. The Deans, faculty and staff involved with the pantry at the school are the heroes because they were doing their work while ensuring the food was procured, boxed and delivered. They went far above and beyond. The pantry was a providence that set everything in place. When COVID-19 hit, I was so grateful the infrastructure was already established and we were able to just continue to fulfill those needs.”
Calvin Streeter, Ph.D., is the Meadows Foundation Centennial Professor in the Quality of Life in the Rural Environment. He received his MSW and PhD from the Brown School of Social Work at Washington University in St. Louis. His social work practice experience includes rural community development, program planning and implementation, and program evaluation.
Streeter teaches both MSSW and Ph.D. courses. He has most recently taught Strategic Partnership through Collaborative Leadership, Program Evaluation, and Dynamics of Organizations and Communities in the MSSW program and Data Analysis in the Ph.D. program. He also teaches the forum seminar in Social Entrepreneurship and Non-Profits for the university’s Bridging Disciplines Program