The Baylor Free Farmers Market had to get creative in its fourth year to help the between 15% and 25% of students who struggle to afford food every semester.
The market has been adapted to square with pandemic precautions, said Craig Nash, Waco regional manager for the Baylor University Collaborative on Hunger and Poverty. Volunteers bagged and delivered food, and students signed up for times to come to the market to prevent crowding. Nash said organizers planned to serve 2,000 students, up from the 1,800 served during a more typical distribution since the Baylor Free Farmers Market started biannual events in 2016. The Central Texas Food Bank provided 20,000 pounds of food for the market, mostly fresh produce.
“Because of COVID-19 a lot of financial situations are dire, and we know there’s a higher student need,” Nash said.
Nash said the notion of the archetypal broke college student, living off of ramen noodles and struggling to stay afloat, is no longer acceptable to as many people. He said societal attitudes have changed as tuition costs have risen, and financial instability among students is not a laughing matter anymore.
“Families’ budgets are being stretched thinner, and the issue is being highlighted more and people are noticing it more,” Nash said. “On top of that: COVID-19.”
Nash said families who could ordinarily send their students money if needed might not be able to because of the economic crisis the ongoing pandemic brings with it. In other cases, students might be going to school and working to support their families simultaneously.
On top of that, students are spending less time on campus and many of the social events that would come with free food during a normal semester have been changed or canceled as a precaution. Nash said he expects next semester to be the same.
“As a country, in general, we do a really good job of responding to disasters but we don’t do a good job thinking long-term, addressing the conditions that make people hungry,” Nash said. “We went into charity mode earlier in the pandemic. Everyone started giving food and giving money and helping.”
But the early burst of enthusiastic giving and volunteering might give way to fatigue during the holiday season, the time of year when most people are inclined to give to food banks and charitable causes, he said. The fact that so many people have taken some kind of financial hit because of the pandemic also could start to have a negative effect on charitable giving.
“People’s economic situations are more dire,” Nash said. “Also, people will be in their houses more, and that will stretch their food needs as well.”
While the Baylor Free Farmers Market was just getting started, the Central Texas Food Bank was also partnering with H-E-B to pass out holiday meals outside Waco ISD Stadium, part of the grocery chain’s annual Feast of Sharing. The annual event usually takes the form of an in-person meal served by employee volunteers but was modified for the sake of safety.
H-E-B also plans to donate more than 340,000 meals in Texas and Mexico and donate food and money to 18 Texas food banks and more than 40 hunger relief agencies, according to its website.
According to data from the Urban Institute, 19.6% of Americans between the ages of 18 and 64 experienced food insecurity in September, and 37.1% were jobless.
Baylor started its free food distributions in 2016 after members of the Baylor Collaborative on Hunger and Poverty attended a student affairs conference that touched on the issue of food insecurity among students, then followed up with a survey that identified the need among Baylor students, said Nathan Alleman, a research fellow with the collaborative.
About the same time, Waco Family of Faith Worship Center Pastor Ruben Andrade Jr. reached out to the school about organizing a food pantry, and he worked closely with them to organize the Baylor Free Farmers Markets.
“There are a lot of costs associated with being a student, and typically students aren’t prepared for the full cost of college even if they understand tuition costs,” Alleman said.
He said the market is also intended to help destigmatize accepting donated food, something he said can be a powerful deterrent for someone in need.
“One of the goals is to make it feel acceptable,” Alleman said.
Alleman said Baylor Collaborative on Hunger and Poverty is collaborating with two other institutions to research the financial upheaval students are facing because of COVID-19. He said the upcoming long fall break will pose another challenge, but the university’s food pantry, The Store, plans to send take-home Thanksgiving meal kits for the end of the month.
Director of Student Success Initiatives Michelle Cohenour said a steady stream of students have utilized The Store this semester. The number of weekly visits has decreased from about 100 visits per week to 50 visits per week, but students are taking more supplies during fewer trips, Cohenour said.
“Students are really trying to be thoughtful about when they’re going out and interactions,” she said.
The food pantry launched in 2017 and stocks a combination of food from the Central Texas Food Bank, other donations of food, and household supplies purchased with donated money. Student Success Initiatives manages the food pantry and works with special populations like first-generation students, veterans and transfer students.
“Thankfully, we’ve had a good supply of donations coming in,” Cohenour said. “We have alumni that donate. We have Baylor moms donating food from our Amazon wish list, which is a huge blessing. I don’t want to take that for granted. I think people are aware of the need out there, not just at Baylor but in the Waco community.”