UTEP Food Pantry opens to students in need on campus

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EL PASO — Ester Zapata, homeless and hungry after she started college at the University of Texas in El Paso, never forgot the pain, loneliness and suffering of not being able to find relief.

So after she finished college, she decided to start her own program this year for low-income and hungry students at UTEP. With fast growing support from volunteers and the local community, a food pantry was inaugurated at UTEP in September.

Miner Connection consists of an organization and a physical location that promotes the well-being of all UTEP students and seeks to create social change pertaining to hunger and food security within the campus.

The organization includes faculty, staff, students, and volunteers who promote the use of the UTEP food pantry. The pantry’s mission is to “Help create awareness of the service, reduce stigma associated with hunger and food security, volunteer to maintain a functional space, dedicate time and energy to collection and distribution of goods, and conduct research regarding food security.”

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Miner Connection is dedicated to improving the health and welfare of low-income and no-income students. According to a survey of the UTEP student body, 760 students said they knew somebody suffering from food and shelter insecurity on campus. More than 25 percent of the students attending UTEP have a yearly income of less than $12,000, which is below the U.S. poverty level, so maintaining a steady supply of food can be difficult.

Zapata explains that through her own experience she knows that malnutrition in school hurts academics. Students should understand they are not alone now when hunger becomes a problem. She never expected to worry about shelter and food while being in school, but in 2001 when she was just starting school, she became homeless.

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“Expectations from professors and staff overwhelm students into not eating,” says Zapata as she inspects canned-goods left for donation.

With donations pouring, the Food Pantry got a good start and volunteers expect it to be a long-term success. UTEP’s Food Pantry is a one-of-a-kind nourishment provider with a “no questions asked” policy. Programs like this one in other universities vary. Other facilities require filling out an application that takes time to approve. At UTEP no application is necessary to get food. Whether students, staff or faculty, walk-ins are accepted immediately.

Hunger at universities is more common than most people realize. A study at Oregon University showed that 59 percent of students experienced some type of food insecurity within the last year. A survey at the University of Hawaii showed that 21 percent of their students were experiencing food shortages and favored creating a program like UTEP’s Food Pantry. According to an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, at least 39% of students at every school experience some type of food insecurity.

“Part of reducing the stigma is not being embarrassed to talk about it, or not have to talk about it,” says Zapata. “We believe in the goodness of Miners,” explains Zapata. Everyone is welcome to go by Room 112 in the Union West on the UTEP campus to experience the warmth and goodness of the Food Pantry, she said.

Information about the Miner Connection is available through utepminorconnection@gmail.com, (915) 747-5000, Facebook.com/minerconnection or Twitter at #MinerConnection to stay connected on social media.

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