By Elisabeth Lively
Student hunger is real. Northeast Texas Community College recently received $140,000 to help fight the battle on its campus.
In December 2018, the NTCC Social Work Club started the campus’ first food pantry, and its size and significance has only grown since. Last year, NTCC President Dr. Ron Clinton received an invitational letter from the League for Innovation in the Community College asking NTCC to submit a grant proposal to apply for the Innovation Solutions for Hunger Relief in Student Success grant. Clinton passed the letter on to Carmen Shurtleff, instructor of social work and sociology. Shurtleff, who is also adviser to the NTCC Social Work Club, said she applied for the grant because she knew it would benefit the Eagle Pantry. Out of the 13 proposals, NTCC and West Kentucky Community and Technical College were the only two schools selected to receive the funding.
Cynthia Wilson, vice president for Learning and chief impact officer at the League for Innovation in the Community College, said that NTCC stood out because it was already engaged in fighting student hunger.
“There was certainly, in the proposal they submitted, definite enthusiasm for this work,” Wilson said. “There was a commitment, I think that’s a better word than enthusiasm, commitment to this work that resonated with us.”
The Hope Center for College, Community and Justice distributed an online survey created by the USDA to 123 two and four-year colleges across the country in fall 2018. Out of the 86,000 students who responded, results reported that 48% of the students surveyed faced some form of food insecurity.
The Hope Center defines food insecurity as “limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate and safe food, or the ability to acquire such food in a socially acceptable manner.”
Because this grant is one of the first aimed at fighting food insecurities, NTCC and WKCTC will become the pilot program used to promote and aid hunger relief for students and their families throughout the college and local communities.
“Food insecurity is a real challenge for some of our students, and as we do everything we can to care for our students, it’s important for us to look into new and innovative ways to do this,” NTCC Vice President for Instruction Kevin Rose said. “We can’t do this alone, nor does food insecurity stop at the edges of our campus. Working with our community is absolutely critical.”
After the grant expires in two years, other colleges will look at how NTCC and WKCTC applied the grant to help alleviate hunger and how it benefited their students and community.
“We are the test model,” Shurtleff said. “So there’s no examples. They’re going to have examples of us in the future because we’re ground zero. We’re the foundation. We’re starting it, which, to me, is so exciting.”
Shurtleff said the Eagle Pantry provides additional food to individuals and families because local food banks are restricted in the amount of food they can distribute to individuals. She said that when both the Eagle Pantry and the local pantry are accessed by a student, he or she could receive enough food to supplement a week.
Shurtleff said that to ensure the grant is “meaningfully unique and successful” the League for Innovation in the Community College partnered with Doug Hall, inventor, entrepreneur and founder of Eureka! Ranch, a think tank-like organization.
Hall, who has worked with various Fortune 500 companies, is teaching a series of Innovative Engineering classes to the NTCC team working with the grant. His motto of inspiration is “plan, do, study, act.”
“The entire topic of Innovation Engineering is very interesting,” Rose said. “It is interesting in that the principles taught through the training are about problem solving and it incorporates strategic thinking, independent of the problem you are trying to solve. So, while we are looking at food insecurities as the primary challenge, the principles we are learning can be applied to many other issues we are working to solve.”
Rose said the process of learning how to implement the grant will go beyond just looking at the issue of food insecurities.
“These problem-solving principles will help students develop critical thinking skills, which is a big priority for us at Northeast, and any time we can bring innovative approaches to our students, it’s a great opportunity for all of us,” Rose said.
The team working on the grant is comprised of more than just students in the Social Work Club.
Using Hall’s Innovative Engineering classes, students, administration, staff and community leaders are all taking part to find the best use and application of the grant.
“We are so thrilled to help NTCC be selected for the League of Innovation grant by partnering together,” Alethea Dove Smerdon, executive director for God’s Closet and Camp County Cares, said. “This grant will help us all learn to think outside of the box to provide good food for food challenged students and their families. Through this grant we will innovatively eliminate student hunger. This will bring awareness of food challenged students and encourage us to put our minds together to solve this issue.”
Shurtleff said they are looking to develop a plan to work with community leaders to better serve the students throughout the local area.
“We want to build a collaboration to service the students and their families in all three of our counties,” Shurtleff said. “And, Morris County and Camp County are considered distressed counties because of the high unemployment and high rate of poverty.”
Shurtleff and her team are yet to come up with their big idea on how to use the grant funds, but suggestions include a mobile pantry to visit the local communities or pairing with the Ag department to grow the pantry’s food on the Eagle Ranch.
In addition to the grant and the changes it will bring to the pantry, Shurtleff said she has a goal that she plans to reach before the grant expires in two years.
She aspires to have an official care center on campus that will house both perishable and non-perishable foods, hygiene products, baby items and a clothing closet with a small fee.
Shurtleff said she is also exploring a partnership with the NTCC Business Club to teach students about professionalism. As for long-term goals, Shurtleff hopes to have an on-campus master’s-level case manager that will assist students with not only academic, but personal, mental and social issues.
With eagerness in her voice, Shurtleff said that she expects the grant’s impact on the pantry will not only affect the local communities, but the nation as well.
“With our success, they will model our approach to other community colleges,” Shurtleff said.
Shurtleff said this grant is an opportunity to make a difference in the lives of students who have food insecurities.
“I think a lot of the solutions for poverty and unemployment is education,” she said. “So if we can bridge the gap of helping people with the basic need of being hungry, maybe that will help alleviate some social problems to where they’re able to get an education.”
Tonya Hammonds, president of the Social Work Club, said this grant has the potential to impact many students and colleges.
“People have lives,” Hammonds said. “And it’s really hard to get their studying in, and it’s even harder if they’re sitting there trying to study and their stomach is growling. We need to make an example, we need to be an example for other community colleges to say, ‘Hey, we should bring a pantry in, this will help our students, this will bring, maybe, new jobs in, because these students will come back, open up new businesses. We’re hoping that it will help the community that way.”
Currently, the Eagle Pantry is open every Thursday from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. in the Wesley building.
NTCC students with their current student ID will be allowed to take home enough food to sustain the number of members in their household.
“I think it’s going to help more people get more food than just coming to us…” Landon Glade, volunteer at God’s Closet in Pittsburg said. “I think this will be a huge success for the community to have more food than what is already being passed out and given to people. I think this will give a big boost to the community.”
As part of the grant, The League, partnering with The Hope Center, recently sent out a survey, similar to the one in 2018, but specifically to NTCC and WKTCC students, asking about their mental, emotional and food insecurities.
Results are confidential and students who complete the survey will have the chance to win $50. Shurtleff encourages all students to fill out the 10-minute survey.
To learn more about food insecurity, refer to “College and University Basic Needs Insecurity: A National #RealCollege Survey Report” at hope4college.com.
For additional questions, contact the Eagle Pantry at CARE@ntcc.edu.