by Becca Muncy and Matthew Fendt
For many Americans, it takes a worldwide pandemic or a snowstorm knocking out our power to make us think about where we’ll get our next meal. Yet here in the U.S., food shortage is a daily reality for many. It is projected that, in 2021, 42 million Americans will experience food insecurity, which is defined as the inability to afford three nutritious meals a day. In Texas, the food insecurity rate is about 14%, which is higher than the national average. The Baylor Collaborative on Hunger and Poverty (BCHP) is an organization working to solve food insecurity among Texans, starting right here on Baylor’s campus.
BCHP was founded in 2019 as part of Baylor’s “Illuminate’” strategic plan. It grew out of the Texas Hunger Initiative (THI), a group that has been around since 2009. When BCHP was founded, it became an umbrella organization over THI. BCHP’s premise is that people have a fundamental right to be free from hunger. According to the mission statement, BCHP is:
“a collaborative at the forefront of poverty research. Where social science meets social responsibility. Where learning is magnified by doing. Where fact is energized by faith. And where the words ‘love thy neighbor’ are not just words.”
Although BCHP started its work in Waco, it has since expanded to other Texas cities, including Austin, Dallas, El Paso, Houston, Lubbock, McAllen, and San Angelo. In the hopes of bringing about even bigger change, BCHP has advocates working at the local governmental level across Texas but also at the national level in Washington D.C. Nearby in Oklahoma, food insecurity researchers have taken a page from BCHP’s book and created Hunger Free Oklahoma, which has similar goals of addressing hunger in the state.
BCHP’s staff includes 26 employees, who are engaged in numerous initiatives both on campus and off. The organization partners with on-campus departments, service providers in the community, and other non-profits. A list of their current partnerships and programs includes:
- The Store and The Fridge: The Store is Baylor’s food pantry, which offers year-round access to free food for Baylor students. Founded in 2017, The Store seeks to destigmatize food insecurity and meet the food needs of Baylor students so that they may be their best selves in class and around campus. The Store is located in the Paul L. Foster Success Center and is part of Baylor’s Student Success Initiatives (SSI). The Fridge is a project with a similar goal of destigmatizing food insecurity. The Fridge provides Baylor students with access to healthy foods and snacks through a number of minifridges stationed around campus in high-use buildings.
- Free Farmers Market : Started in the fall of 2016, the Free Farmers Market (FFM) is a bi-annual event that provides Baylor students with access to fresh produce and other foods. Set up on Fountain Mall, the FFM serves over 2,000 students each year. The FFM is responsible, in part, for the growth of other Baylor hunger-fighting initiatives. The popularity of the FFM led to the creation of mobile food pantries as well as The Store.
- Meals-to-You : Meals-to-You began in 2019 as a program to provide nourishing, shelf-stable meals through the mail to families living in rural areas across Texas. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in 2020, the U.S. Department of Agriculture worked directly with BCHP to expand Meals-to-You beyond the state of Texas to meet the needs of children and families who were missing out on meals due to school closures.
- Hunger Data Lab : The Hunger Data Lab is an open-access site that houses ready-to-use data sets and reports that may serve organizations and individuals in the fight to end hunger. The goal of the Hunger Data Lab is to make data on poverty and food insecurity easily accessible, so that other institutions and individuals may make data-driven decisions on how to help in the battle against food insecurity.
- Campus Kitchen : The Campus Kitchen at Baylor University (CKBU) was established in October of 2008 and is an affiliate of the national Campus Kitchens Project, a non-profit housed in Washington D.C. CKBU is a student-led organization that focuses on minimizing food waste and alleviating hunger within the Waco community. Student teams recover unused food from Baylor dining halls and local restaurants, run the Campus Kitchen Community Garden, and prepare and deliver meals to Waco nonprofits.
- World Hunger Relief, Inc. : World Hunger Relief, Inc. (WHRI) is a Christian organization with a working farm committed to the alleviation of food insecurity and malnutrition through teaching and practicing sustainable agriculture and supporting the community development of individual and small farms. The WHRI is a 40-acre farm located just outside of Waco that is committed to educating Waco residents on sustainable farming practices, with the goal of making the Waco food system a more just, equitable, and ecological system. The WHRI has partnered with BCHP and the Truett Seminary at Baylor to launch a degree program in Theology, Ecology, and Food Justice.
- SNAP Promotion—The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (add Hyperlink to SNAP website): SNAP provides nutrition benefits to supplement the food budget of any needy family so that they may purchase healthy food and move towards self-sufficiency. SNAP data, specifically from Texas, makes up a large part of the research at the Hunger Data Lab. SNAP is available for college students nationwide, and so Baylor students may take advantage of the food assistance it provides if they qualify.
The reason BCHP is engaged in hunger relief on so many fronts is because for many Americans, it’s not possible to prepare three nutritious meals a day for their families. The main reason this is difficult is affordability. Healthy, fresh food is not cheap, and many people struggle to make ends meet. Cara Allen, a research analyst with BCHP, explains that BCHP’s many initiatives are based on national and state data. “We craft programs and policies that are supported by research rather than just hunches,” she says. According to the data collected by researchers such as Allen, approximately 34 million Americans live below the poverty line, which is defined as a household income of $26,200 per year for a family of four.
But what exactly is “food insecurity”? The United States Department of Agriculture defines food insecurity as a “household-level economic and social condition of limited or uncertain access to adequate food” over a period of 30 days. Food insecurity is related to, but not the same as, hunger, which is defined as “an individual-level physiological condition that may result from food insecurity.” Food insecurity and hunger are problems that occur all across the nation, including here in Waco and even on the Baylor University campus.
For Baylor students or anyone else who faces intermittent or ongoing hunger, food insecurity is a deeply personal issue. Although the THI has been faithfully serving Texans since 2009, in 2016 it also turned inward to focus specifically on the needs of the Baylor student body. It may be surprising to learn that the college student population regularly suffers from food insecurity, even at an affluent university such as Baylor. About 47% of students nationally, and 20-25% of students at Baylor, experience food insecurity at some point in their academic career. For most students, food insecurity is episodic rather than a constant concern. It most commonly occurs at the end of the semester when students are busy studying for finals and do not have time to prepare nutritious meals, or during university breaks over Christmas or the summer when dining halls are closed and students cannot get access to healthy food.
For a faith-based institution such as Baylor, food is more than just sustenance. Allen explains that, “It is essential to our Christian commitment that we support students’ food needs, not just so that they can graduate, but so that they can bring their best selves to the classroom. It’s not just about doing well academically, but nourishing the students’ mind, body, and soul.” Jesus himself urges us to help satisfy the hunger needs of our neighbors, saying, “For I was hungry and you gave me food; I was thirsty and you gave me drink” (Matthew 25:35). Through the initiatives that BCHP runs, Baylor is honoring its Christian duty to its students.
We also talked to Dr. Nathan Alleman, an Associate Professor in Educational Leadership, whose research with the Food Insecurity Working Group has kickstarted several BCHP initiatives. Alleman says that, “For quite a number of students, food insecurity is the price they pay for adulthood. They’re being responsible adults, they’re handling their own financial realities…. They’re trying to have the full Baylor experience, and so the thing that gets squeezed out is food.” Between paying rent, working, and balancing both school and a social life, the question of finding and paying for food is often pushed aside. The problem of food insecurity also goes beyond students’ access to food; it includes the opportunity costs students have to weigh—such as deciding between paying for a campus organization or paying for food, or choosing to work extra hours to be able to afford food but then giving up attending a study group. Facing food insecurity and worrying about where one’s next meal may come from keeps some students from enjoying the quintessential college experience.
Alleman also notes that research into food insecurity is rarely conducted at prosperous universities such as Baylor; it is more often conducted at state universities and community colleges. In an environment such as Baylor’s, a certain level of affluence among the student body is simply assumed, Alleman says, which makes providing and destigmatizing BCHP’s resources so important. Because people assume that everyone has roughly the same financial means, students may hesitate to admit they need assistance as they battle food insecurity.
Alleman cites the Free Farmers Market (FFM) as an example of changing students’ perspectives on food insecurity resources at Baylor. The FFM is a fun, social event as much as a resource, and no one feels embarrassed or ashamed about picking up boxes of food from the market. There is also no criteria for who is eligible for this food, and so everyone can get involved. Alleman explained that launching the “Free Farmers Market made it okay to get food, free food, and it’s…[also] a fun opportunity.” After enjoying the FFM, Alleman says, students feel more comfortable seeking out other free food resources, such as The Store. Alleman cites the FFM as the reason The Store has a higher usage rate than free food pantries at similar universities.
Craig Nash, the Waco regional director for BCHP, stresses the importance of educating everyone about food insecurity, both those who are experiencing it and those who are in the position to fight it. Nash says that what most people think of as hunger is not the same for all individuals. It’s not a problem unique to developing countries; it could be affecting someone closer to home. Someone you know, Nash says, is making tough decisions between paying their rent or paying for food that you may not have to make, and they might never tell you that they’re struggling.
Yet the answer to solving food insecurity isn’t just paying for a friend’s meal now and then. Such a gesture not only leads your friend to potentially feel like a “second-class citizen” in need of charity, but it also doesn’t address the systemic issues that keep people food insecure. In addition, Nash says, people often think that fighting hunger is the role of one organization or entity, such as a religious institution, the federal government, or the effort of an individual person. But fighting hunger and ending food insecurity demand effort from all of us.
Individuals and organizations, big and small, need to work together to find, provide, and promote resources that lift people out of food insecurity and help them sustain a hunger-free life. Through its partnerships and initiatives, this is the work that BCHP strives to do. If you want to help in making BCHP’s mission of ending food insecurity a reality, you can donate to BCHP itself, donate to The Store work as a graduate assistant for BCHP, complete an internship with THI, or volunteer with Campus Kitchens.