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UTD’s student food pantry partners with North Texas Food Bank to help fight student hunger

Comet Cupboard combats food insecurity on campus with added support from the North Texas Food Bank and a new student-run farm.

Avery McKitrick
Avery McKitrick (center), sustainability coordinator for UTD, drops off fresh garlic while Amy Chomas (right), a student volunteer, looks on. UTD has created a student farm as part of its Eco Hub to provide fresh produce for the university’s student food pantry.(Stewart F. House / Special Contributor)

By Jessica Rodriguez

The University of Texas at Dallas’ Comet Cupboard, one of the first college food pantries in Texas, will mark its 10th anniversary in October.

That milestone comes on the heels of a partnership with the North Texas Food Bank, an expanded space set to debut this academic year and a new 20,000-square-foot, student-led farm that will provide fresh produce.

In fall 2021, the pantry was used over 6,200 times and supported by 300 volunteers. It welcomed over 1,600 visitors and distributed over 43,000 items. But the Comet Cupboard had humble beginnings.

When UTD’s Office of Undergraduate Education decided to launch a food pantry, Hillary Beauchamp Campbell, director of undergraduate programs at UTD, was in for a challenge. The space she had to work with was about the size of a storage closet, taken up by a large German electronic filing cabinet.

“The first thing that we needed to do was get that thing out of there. … Well, it turns out you have to contact the manufacturer in Germany, and they had to come and dismantle it and take it out piece by piece,” said Campbell.

With their space finally cleared, the small team learned about best practices for stocking a food pantry. The Comet Cupboard opened its doors in fall 2012.

Even before volunteering hours were used as a requirement for different programs, students always saw the need surrounding food insecurity, Campbell said. And they wanted an opportunity to help.

“The first part [of our mission] is to make sure students have food so that they can learn. The second part is cultivating the service-learning environment within the academic environment and helping students have that awareness that their peers are people with stories and needs,” said Campbell.

Student volunteering is also at the core of UTD’s new 20,000 square-foot student-led farm, said Gary Cocke, UTD’s director of sustainability and energy.

When UTD was deciding what to do with the area now called the Eco Hub, Cocke realized that using some of the space for a student farm could be a great resource for both the university and its students.

“We had about 80 student volunteers turn out,” said Cocke. “We gave them resources and everything that they need to grow crops, and now we’re completing our first year of growing.”

Garlic
Garlic from the student farm created at UTD as part of its Eco Hub to provide fresh produce for the university’s student food pantry.(Stewart F. House / Special Contributor)

A winter freeze set the farm back in its first harvest. But the farm pushed through, donating 149 pounds of produce to the Comet Cupboard so far in its first year, providing students with fresh produce like cucumbers, garlic, okra and zucchini.

During the pandemic, the Comet Cupboard was able to continue serving students experiencing food insecurity. But doing so safely required some creativity, said Uyen Van “Bel” Khuu, a student coordinator.

Having several volunteers in the pantry was no longer possible. So the team shifted to a personal shopper operation. Students were given a checklist of food and dietary restrictions, and a UTD staff or faculty member would gather their items for pickup.

The Comet Cupboard also established a partnership with the campus police department to create a 24/7 donation drop-off location.

“Now the post-pandemic operation is just something that really excites me,” said Khuu, whose role involves training and supporting student volunteers.

During the pandemic, the North Texas Food Bank distributed food several times at UTD with its mobile food pantry. This sparked their formal partnership with the Comet Cupboard in March 2021.

College students are a unique population when it comes to food insecurity, said Kim Morris, director of community partner relations at the North Texas Food Bank. They experience the stigma associated with food insecurity and often fall under the radar.

“What we know about [college hunger] is that a lot of times it’s hidden,” she said. “You can have people that are high learners doing great in school, and you find out later that they really are spending their money on tuition and sleeping in their cars.”

The North Texas Food Bank is partnering with food pantries at UTD, Dallas College and the University of North Texas at Dallas. The food bank is restructuring its programs in a way that may help it reach more colleges in the coming years.

It’s critical to meet students where they are, said Stefanie Zimmer, a senior community partner relations specialist at the North Texas Food Bank.

“We’re trying to reduce that stigma,” she said, “and ensure that people feel comfortable asking for support.”

Jessica Rodriguez reports on science for The Dallas Morning News as part of a fellowship with the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

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