It was getting close to the end of the month, and microbiology senior Sierra Lee was out of money. She’s a single mom and has a 3-year-old son to feed at home.
Lee began to search for ways to get food on the table, she said, even considering returning merchandise she had previously purchased to get refunds.
That’s when she discovered the UTA Volunteers and Tri-C Food Pantry.
“It felt really relieving,” Lee said. “Providing food is just one more thing you have to worry about. Not just for yourself but for this child too, that is completely dependent on you.”
The pantry is housed at the Tri-C on the north side of the University Center and opens biweekly on Thursdays during the fall and spring semesters to offer free food to the UTA community. During the summer, the pantry is available upon request from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Thursday.
According to the study “Going Without: An Exploration of Food and Housing Insecurity Among Undergraduates,” published in 2017, about half of all college students are food insecure, meaning they do not have reliable access to the appropriate amount of affordable, nutritious food.
The cost of attending university can often make it difficult for students to pay for their bills, Tri-C campus minister Jerry Sandoval said. This problem can be compounded for students who have never had to manage their own expenses or live away from home.
It also affects many international students because they often have restrictions on the types of jobs they can have in the U.S. and are often far away from their support systems, he said.
Sandoval recalled one student who visited the pantry who was previously financially stable. Her parents had supported her, but when one of her relatives fell ill, she began eating only one meal a day to save money for medical expenses.
The pantry helped her save money but not compromise on her health, he said.
Reducing the number of meals in a day is common among students but can have detrimental effects on their long-term well-being, GPA, health and ability to finish college, he said.
Lee said the pantry helps her focus on her studies and take care of her son.
“Some college students like me have families that we have to support or work full time, and they’re just struggling to pay their bills,” she said. “Even the traditional college student that is living on campus or living off of student loans, they can still be susceptible to food insecurity.”
Alex Sanchez, former food pantry student director, said the pantry receives donations from community members, churches, UTA departments and students. The easiest and most impactful way students can help out is by donating, even if it’s just a couple cans of food, he said.
Throughout the year, the pantry requests items high in demand, he said. In the winter, the pantry needs a lot of soup, and there always seems to be a shortage of cereal and snacks.
For volunteers, Sanchez believes the pantry provides insight into the people around them.
Sanchez said he realized that anyone could be struggling with food insecurity.
“I think of the people sitting next to me; I think of the people who I speak with on a daily basis,” he said. “I don’t know what may be going on in their lives.”
Volunteering allows him to help combat this issue, and seeing the way it impacts students’ lives is fulfilling, he said.
The number of volunteers and donations that the pantry receives is also indicative of the goodwill in the community, he said.
“It shows everybody involved that there is a will out there to help others around you,” Sanchez said. “It really offers some perspective.”
But although the pantry has grown, the hope is to continue reaching more people in need, Sandoval said.
He doesn’t think all of the UTA students who could benefit from the pantry take advantage of it; the average number of students who suffer from food insecurity at universities nationally is higher than the students who come in, he said.
Lee said she urges those who need help to get it and not be ashamed to come to the pantry.
“It’s okay to be struggling. It’s okay to receive help,” she said. “Everybody needs a support system, and sometimes that support system comes in the form of your school or your community members.”