When Northeast Texas Community College (NTCC) applied to participate in the League for Innovation in the Community College’s Innovative Solutions for Hunger Relief and Student Success Project in 2019, project lead Carmen Shurtleff had no idea that the next two years would move her social work students’ efforts in hunger relief far beyond the food pantry, or that the changes would occur during one of the most disruptive periods many educators have ever experienced.

The college’s Eagle Pantry was established by Shurtleff’s social work students in 2018 to provide food and hygiene items for students in need, but it was not well known on campus. After participating in Eureka! Ranch’s Innovation Engineering training in late January 2020, NTCC’s project team planned to begin with activities to raise awareness of the scope of food insecurity among its students and of the Eagle Pantry as a food and healthy-eating resource for students and their families. Within two months, however, all plans were abruptly interrupted with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. The project temporarily took a backseat as NTCC, like colleges everywhere, closed its campus and moved operations entirely online, but the commitment to this work never wavered.

While the campus was closed, the pantry continued operations with curbside pickup and went from serving an average of 40 to 300 students a month. Home delivery was added for students with health concerns or limited transportation. The pantry partnered with a local nonprofit, God’s Closet, to receive food throughout the pandemic, and added a Cook Nook for dorm students to check out approved cooking equipment.

Through the project, the team also worked with Eureka! Ranch to create EatBetter4Less.com (EB4L), a food education and activation support system. EB4L’s short videos showcase how to purchase healthy foods, prepare inexpensive nutritious meals, read food nutritional labels, use standard food pantry items to prepare healthy meals, and create a personal garden.

The team launched a monthly meal-kit program to raise awareness of EB4L and the Eagle Pantry. Each kit included a reusable EB4L bag, cooking tool, step-by-step recipe card, and local food map. Monthly online and on-site cooking demonstrations showed students how to prepare the meal-kit food.

Other student, family, and community events to promote hunger relief and healthy eating resources followed on campus and in the community to help normalize seeking help. Activities included a backyard crawfish boil requiring an EB4L certificate for entry; community block party featuring food, entertainment, academic advising, and a SNAP navigator; and numerous gardening activities for establishing individual and community vegetable gardens.

These and other efforts led to the opening in fall 2021 of the CARE Center, with a mission focused on providing students with resources through access to education, healthy food, advocacy, and empowerment. Incorporating the Eagle Pantry, hygiene closet, and Cook Nook, the CARE Center also launched a peer-led wellness group, where students gather and learn about healthy living with the EatBetter4Less program.

Finding that students were more likely to be open about basic-needs issues with peers than with faculty or staff, the team established a CARE Mentor position filled by social work interns in a partnership with the Texas A&M University-Commerce Social Work department. To streamline student access to campus and community services, the Eagle Assist webpage was developed in partnership with NTCC’s student services, and through a Feeding America initiative, VISTA/AmeriCorps volunteers are helping students connect with SNAP and WIC benefits.

As services have expanded beyond the food pantry and were rebranded as the CARE Center, the college has seen an increase in the number of students accessing services and has plans for Center expansion. Although the CARE Center is new, early observations suggest an infusion of renewed energy around a more overt culture of caring across the college. It seems likely that the active efforts to normalize asking for help that were started by the Eagle Pantry and continue under the CARE Center are contributing to, if not driving, this transformation.

This graphic illustrates the number of individuals served or reached through these activities from August 2020 through September 2021, as the transformation from food pantry to CARE Center was evolving.


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