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HCC and Roving Radish Step Up to Tackle Food Insecurity

Food pantry at HCC.

Erin Blackwood is juggling a busy schedule with work, taking classes, and raising two young boys, ages 6 and 5. For the Howard Community College (HCC) nursing student, the current pandemic has only caused additional economic strain on her and her family. “I am not able to work much since my children are at home now. The children are home more and not at school, so household supply needs increased greatly,” she says.

Providing for her family has been no easy task for HCC nursing student Jennifer Phillips either. Phillips and her three children ages 15, 18, and 21—all of whom are living at home right now taking classes online like her—relied on HCC’s campus food pantry in the past, and she says that it can be challenging for her to find the time to access local food assistance programs due to her busy schedule.

Blackwood and Phillips are not alone in facing food insecurity, which makes concentrating on schoolwork more difficult and adds an extra layer of stress for these students. According to The Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice’s #RealCollege survey of more than 330,000 students at more than 400 colleges and universities, 42% of respondents attending two-year institutions and 33% attending four-year institutions experienced food insecurity in the past 30 days. The rates are even higher among Hispanic or Latinx (47%), Black (54%) and Indigenous (60%) students.

Despite perceptions of Howard County as a wealthy community, the issue of food insecurity is very real for many students at HCC. To tackle this issue, the college opened a campus food pantry in 2016. The food pantry provides access to nutritious food and personal care items; on average, the pantry gives over 2,300 pounds of food away each month to students in need. Since 2016, the food pantry has grown and additional support for students has been added, like fresh vegetables, meats, and refrigerated items.

Extending the reach of the food pantry has been made possible in part by the support of donors to the HCC Educational Foundation (HCCEF), who upon learning about the college’s efforts wanted to do even more.

“I know from my own personal experience how hard it is to focus, or do anything productive, if you are hungry and don’t know where your next meal is going to come from,” says Rajiv Jain. He, and his wife Hima, partnered with the HCC Educational Foundation in 2019 to greatly expand food supports to include educational videos, workshops, and more to help students learn how to make healthy food choices for life. That program came to be known as Fueling Dragons. “We have lived in Howard County for many years and have seen the great things happening on campus with our own eyes, but we know there are students who are struggling to get by, and we want to help solve the problem.”

“A big part of this is making sure we are equipping people with the right tools to resolve hunger issues not only while they are in school, but also after they graduate,” says Hima.

Filming of the educational videos and planning for cooking workshops lead by HCC’s culinary students began in early 2020. However, once the coronavirus pandemic hit Maryland, the campus and food pantry were forced to close. HCC had to look for alternatives to ensure that students, like Blackwood and Phillips, would not go hungry.

A solution was found via a partnership with Howard County’s Roving Radish, which promotes healthy eating habits through farm-to-table meal kits comprised of locally and regionally grown foods from local farms.

“For inexperienced cooks, the meal kits grow their confidence, and for seasoned cooks, it gets you out of that rut of cooking the same meals over and over,” says James Zoller, agriculture coordinator at Howard County’s Office of Community Sustainability, which oversees Roving Radish. Zoller says that back in January, HCC had reached out to his office to explore a partnership to bring healthy meal kits to the campus food pantry.

“Then, COVID-19 hit, and the pantry was no longer accessible, but we still saw the need to support students in need.” Zoller adds that Roving Radish aims to work with HCC culinary students on developing new recipes for Roving Radish.

Students are invited to participate in the Roving Radish program by student support program directors, like Maureen Marshall, assistant director of HCC’s Career Links, which provides case management support for single parents and displaced homemakers who are students at HCC. Each student receives two full meals per week, which they pick up at designated locations throughout the county.

“With the campus pantry closed, the meal kits from Roving Radish have been a great resource. The recipes are fantastic and healthy,” Marshall says “The meal kits save time, which is critical for students who are also moms and dads, and many times their kids jump in to help in the kitchen.”

Roving Radish has given me an opportunity to make good, healthy meals for everyone in my household,” says Phillips. “It's been challenging to come up with the ideas and the ingredients…This program gives us two good and healthy meals a week that I can cook or one of the kids can cook when I'm in school.” Phillips plans to graduate in May 2021 with an R.N. degree and hopes to continue her studies to obtain her B.S.N. or M.S.N. degree.

Before the pandemic, Blackwood, who also plans to pursue a B.S.N. after graduation, says she utilized the food pantry and meals through Career Links’ “Munch and Meet” program, and now relies on Roving Radish. “The program is easy to use and provided two extra meals per week to my family. Even if I don't make the exact recipes, I have two extra meats and supplies to use to create dinners for my family.” Blackwood says that after graduation she aims to work in emergency medicine, in a labor and delivery or maternal child (postpartum) care unit, or in mental health/psychiatric nursing.

“The portions in the meal kits are quite large, and students only need minimal cooking skills,” adds Tara M. Rupp, associate director of student wellness at HCC. Some students with greater need have been provided a way to order additional free meal-kits each week.

Marshall says that HCC hopes to raise further awareness of the Roving Radish program to reach more students through telephone calls and emails to her Career Links students. “We used to meet once a week for a meal at the campus cafeteria, so we are trying to replicate that via Zoom,” she says. “These students are also working parents who are very busy, so it’s important that we stay in touch.”

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