EDINBURG, Texas – Officials from the U.S. Department of Agriculture visited the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley on Tuesday to recognize and donate to the college’s food insecurity initiatives during the coronavirus pandemic.

Mike Beatty, director of the USDA Office of Partnerships and Public Engagement (OPPE), along with his chief of staff, Riley Pagett, and Todd Lamphere of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, gathered at the Edinburg campus’s Baptist Student Ministry (BSM) to learn more about their work in fighting student hunger.

Since 2015, students have been able to access nonperishable commodities through UTRGV’s food pantry, operated under the auspices of the Food Bank of the Rio Grande Valley. Independently, the BSM opened Global Blends, a “pay-as-you-can” donation-based deli, on Sept. 18, 2019. Its popularity and impact on the student body caught the eye of Jayshree Bhat, assistant vice president for professional education and workforce development for UTRGV. By collaborating, Bhat saw an opportunity to combat food insecurity while fostering professional development through the student-run operation. Plans were in motion when COVID-19 hit, jeopardizing the entire venture.

After deliberating, Bhat and Parwinder Grewal, UTRGV’s executive vice president for research, graduate studies and new program development, decided there was no better time to serve the community than during this national emergency. In April, they hired a chef and student staff to prepare meals, design the week’s menu and acquire ingredients from local farms. In addition to the hot meals provided at Global Blends, produce boxes are also assembled and made available to the public for pick up on Fridays. Bhat says that, so far, the students have been successful in their trial by fire.

“Because we introduced this initiative in the midst of COVID-19, they really got to see how challenges come up out of nowhere, and how you become really good at problem-solving and critical thinking and working together as team and supporting each other,” said Bhat.

In her presentation to the visiting officials, Bhat shared that thousands in the community, including faculty and non-university affiliated residents, had benefited from the program. BSM members also spoke of the personal growth they experienced while participating in the initiative.

“For the BSM, our heart is college students and Jesus,” said Randy Zamarripa, a freshman volunteer. “And, the thing is, we are able to kind of … mesh together loving our community and also serving our community … The fact that we have the privilege to impact college students and staff, not just with our food, but with the conversations that we are able to have … is just rewarding overall.”

To further their efforts, USDA donated 150 food boxes to the university as part of their Coronavirus Food Assistance Program. The Food Bank of the Rio Grande Valley and the Valley Baptist Missions Education Center also received boxes. Within hours of opening their drive-thru lane, BSM volunteers had distributed them all.

Pagett did not seem surprised at the turnout, citing that USDA’s Farmers to Families Food Box Program has already distributed over 100 million boxes nationwide and is still going. The pandemic, Beatty said, only highlighted USDA’s crucial role in supporting poor and rural communities.

“I think USDA plays a very unique role working in underserved communities, with underserved families, to be sure that we got that stepladder – that ladder to success – to get these, particularly, young people moving up,” said Beatty.

Beatty notes that in Texas, persistent poverty remains a huge problem. USDA defines persistent counties as those wherein 20% or more of the population is continually living in poverty as measured by the 1980, 1990, and 2000 censuses as well as the 2007 American Community Survey. For many border counties, and every single county in the Valley, this is the case. According USDA’s Economic Research Service, 14.9% of Texans are living in poverty. But, for Cameron, Hidalgo, Starr and Willacy counties, those numbers are 27.9%, 30%, 33.5% and 35% respectively.

While distributing food boxes to colonia residents earlier in the day, Beatty said it was clear how these types of programs are affecting lives, especially in these times of uncertainty.

“USDA has always been there when America goes through tough times,” said Beatty. “You can go back to the Great Depression; you can go back to the Dust Bowl; you can go back to all of the really tough times in our history, and USDA has been that one agency that’s been in the communities, that’s really been on the ground. So, I think it’s only natural that during a time of pandemic that we be front and center, as much as we can be, to really assist families who are hurting once again. Not just the food box program, but … all the different programs that we do to help people is so important.”

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