Innovative to Address Food Insecurity as a Barrier to Graduation

According to Wisconsin HOPE Lab’s Hungry and Homeless in College (2017), 67 percent of community college students across 24 U.S. states are food insecure, with 33 percent of those students experiencing the very lowest levels of food security. Moreover, about half of community college students experience housing insecurity, and 14 percent are homeless.

In a fall 2017 Houston Community College (HCC) survey, 88 percent of student respondents indicated that food giveaways helped them focus more on school (Hernandez, 2018). As a result of survey findings, the college initiated an effort to combat basic needs insecurities that negatively impact student retention and success.

At HCC, the financial aid department’s financial coaches are on the front line of addressing basic needs insecurities affecting student persistence. They see students who register with eagerness and hope later become discouraged by economic challenges.

In a natural extension of their work, HCC financial coaches forged a partnership with the Houston Food Bank for a game-changing food scholarship program in conjunction with a two-year research study to explore the academic impact of providing food assistance.

Collaborative Innovation Addressing and Analyzing Food Insecurity 

In 2012, Houston Food Bank’s Food for Change initiative identified that individuals who frequent the pantries were not advancing economically. The organization saw an opportunity to collaborate with institutions and organizations that position clients for greater economic opportunity.

“Our clients were dealing with so many issues outside of food that unless we dealt with those issues, and connected them with programs to advance economically, they would not be able to move beyond needing food assistance,” said Reginald Young, Director of Food for Change, which oversees the food scholarship program at the Houston Food Bank.

In 2016, Houston Food Bank’s Food for Change awarded HCC’s financial coaches a grant to offer food scholarships. Shortly thereafter, the partnership between the Houston Food Bank and the HCC financial coach team was strengthened by the opportunity to analyze the impact of food scholarships.

Funded by the Kresge Foundation and William T. Grant Foundation, co-principal investigators Dr. Daphne Hernandez of the University of Houston and Dr. Sara Goldrick-Rab of Temple University are evaluating the two-year impact of HCC’s food scholarship on students’ academic performance and persistence in college.

How the Food Scholarship Works 

During the spring and fall semesters of 2018, 1,000 students—most Latino or African American—were selected for access to the food scholarship program through a randomized process based on income reported on their FAFSA. To participate, these students were required to opt in to the program through a quick online form. Of the 500 students offered access to the scholarships in spring 2018, 53 percent opted in; 500 additional students were offered access to the scholarships in October 2018.

Twice a month, a Houston Food Bank refrigerated food truck delivers to food distribution locations set up as farmers market style experiences at two alternating HCC campuses. The food scholarship program provides each participating student with 60 pounds of produce, meat, and nonperishable food. Students’ financial aid packages are not affected, and participating students are encouraged to allocate the money saved to handle other costs.

Current Impact 

HCC’s Director of Financial Aid Operations, Bianca Matlock, described the program as “a large undertaking made possible through cross-departmental partnerships.” Setting up the program was a collaborative effort between financial coaches, campus management, security, a PeopleSoft analyst, information technology, communications, and the call center.

The project is in early stages and data collection is ongoing; however, anecdotal reports indicate that students consider the program a great benefit. One HCC food scholarship

recipient stated, “I just want to let you guys know how thankful and grateful I am for what you are doing to help the students, their families, and the community. You have no idea how much your program helped our family. I will always be grateful for all your help.”

Armando Galvan-Cruces, HCC financial coach, said, “The food scholarship has been intense, deeply gratifying work that we know our students need.” Beyond the direct impact on students, the food scholarship program has ignited an institutional domino effect. There are now more actionable conversations about food insecurities and basic-needs gaps, as well as plans for campus food pantries.

While the partners await the research results, the innovative HCC food scholarship program continues to help change participating students’ lives. “We lose students struggling with food insecurity one at a time,” said Galvan-Cruces. “With the food scholarship, we can help students complete—one food distribution at a time.”

Visit for the reference list.

Shar-Day Campbell

Financial Aid Communications and Social Media Coordinator, Houston Community College


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