University of Houston tackling food insecurity through Cougar Cupboard

HOUSTON – Food insecurity can happen to anyone, and the University of Houston is helping students combat the issue through its Cougar Cupboard.

“It takes a village, and we have so many people willing to move mountains for us, whether that be the university’s support of making this space possible and pulling whatever strings they need to, to get us what we need to get,” Jessica Haney said.

The program was founded in 2020. It has grown from a small back room serving less than 50 students to brand new space that’s helping about 800 students every week.

The program also received a donation from TDECU for $23,045. On Friday, the University held a ribbon cutting ceremony. Cougar Cupboard Program Manager Jessica Haney gave KPRC2′s Re’Chelle Turner a walkthrough of the facility.

“We have a variety of options for students. We have, even just right here, varieties of rice, beans,” she said.

Haney and Turner spoke about food insecurity and how it’s impacting students.

“Growing up, I was always told, ‘oh, well, when you’re in college, you’re just going to have to be poor. You’re going to have to live off ramen.’ It’s kind of a funny thing. But living that way as a college student has real implications. Studies have shown that, first, one in three college students could be experiencing food insecurity, and those rates are higher in Harris County than the national average. In addition to that, food insecurity in college students is linked to lower academic performance, lower graduation rates, lower retention rates, and can also lead to health issues, whether that be from the stress of being food insecure or the lack of nutrients that they receive or skipping meals in general,” Haney said.

Haney spoke about the importance of the program.

“Well, I think that food insecurity is obviously linked to financial insecurity. And 38-percent of the users that we interviewed at intake said that they considered leaving the university due to the financial stress they were experiencing. And after interviewing them, after using the Cupboard, 90-percent of them said that their academic performance, health, and stress levels had all improved. So, I’m not going to say that we’re fixing everything, but I think that we’re doing a really good job of keeping kids in school and keeping them healthy,” she said.

“It is contributing to my overall education, to my future. And, yeah, I mean, I couldn’t do it without the support UH and Cougar Cupboard has given to me,” student Safia Chaudhary said.

Turner spoke to Safia Chaudhary. She’s from India and working on getting her master’s in social work.

“My parents are always worried, what am I eating? So, coming here, I have confidence that if I cannot afford fresh and healthy food, I can always come here and get some,” she said.

Daniella Madrigal is doing the same thing. She’s from Colombia and her story is different.

“Well, it’s a really good place for me as I don’t have a car, so it helps me to not take public transportation. If I’m already on campus, it will help me a lot. And I don’t know Houston very much, so I’m still learning how to navigate the city,” she said.

Students can receive 30 pounds of food each week. More than half of the students who use the program say they don’t have enough money to meet their basic needs. Daniella says the cupboard is critical.

“It helps me, because I can choose beans or rice, and that’s Colombian food for me. It helps me to go through the whole week. Usually, I cook on the weekends, and then I have it ready for the whole week,” she said.

The Cougar Cupboard is open throughout the week.

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