EDINBURG, Texas – The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley announced that it will expand its Campus Food Insecurity Initiative in January to include a fresh produce cooperative.

Jayshree Bhat, assistant vice president of professional education and workforce development for the university, joined Rio Grande Guardian Editor-in-Chief Steve Taylor via Zoom to talk about the program and its roots.

“What we’re trying to do is engage, educate and empower people about food insecurity,” said Bhat. “But, also about healthy eating because we are in a region that is considered the national capitol for chronic illnesses.”

The nationally-recognized program launched on April 17 as a partnership between UTRGV and the campus’s Baptist Student Ministry. Through it, students are able to obtain locally-sourced, organic produce boxes and pre-made meals for a nominal donation. With 44 percent of its student body experiencing food insecurity normally, the initiative proved popular and even more necessary during the coronavirus pandemic. Now, the university hopes to further serve the community and remain solvent through the cooperative.

“Because we are using the pay-what-you-feel model, it is not designed to be financially sustainable, but it’s designed to be socially sustainable,” said Bhat. “… So, our next step is to make this initiative become financially sustainable as well.”

The cooperative will be based on the Edinburg campus next to the Baptist Student Ministry. Bhat says their goal is to become a hub for anything related to food sustainability. But, the obvious residual benefit of the co-op is for residents to implement a healthier, more plant-based diet.

“The Valley is considered a food desert,” said Bhat. “But, the interesting part about the Valley is that we are also an agricultural-based economy. We have been agricultural-based economy. Contrary to what people believe, eight months out of the year, we actually have the ability to grow fresh produce down here. And, there are so many farmers that are growing fresh produce. Large-chain department stores and grocery stores – they’re sourcing organic produce grown by our farmers locally, but the local population doesn’t have access to that. Our goal is to connect that dot … and create that bridge.”

For more information about the program or to donate, please visit their website here.

Here is the Zoom conversation:

Editor’s Note: The main image accompanying the above news story shows Jayshree Bhat.

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