Hundreds of residents at El Pasoans Fighting Hunger select the items they want. (Christian Betancourt/El Paso Matters)

When it comes to hunger, 35% of El Pasoans and 61% of UTEP students faced food insecurity last year, according to a new study conducted by the University of Texas at El Paso and El Pasoans Fighting Hunger 

“I have to say that having done more than two decades of work in food insecurity, working with food banks, both here in Detroit, I am really shocked by the findings of this study,” said Susan Goodell, CEO of El Pasoans Fighting Hunger. “In addition to that, I want to say that they are more than double what national estimates are for this community. I think that is truly shocking for not only myself, but I think for every member of this community and the implications for the society we live in.”

UTEP’s research, which started in November, relied on responses from 657 El Paso County residents and more than 1,000 UTEP students. The results were released Wednesday.

“I hope that this will capture the attention of our elected officials and community leaders,” Goodell said. “When you have a community with one in three people being food insecure, that has enormous implications for our society.”

Gregory Schober, assistant professor of rehabilitation sciences at UTEP, said the new survey was needed because no previous data existed that adequately represented El Paso. Past food insecurity research relied on statewide measures, such as poverty rates and food assistance, which were then applied locally, putting El Paso’s food insecurity at  15.1%.

“(Thirty-five percent)  is more than double the measure of the most recent round of the estimate of 2021,” he said. “Food insecurity is a major and growing challenge in our community. But by identifying the scope of the challenge, we take important steps to address it.”

As part of the research an email survey was sent to UTEP students. As a result, 1,685 of the 23,880 enrolled students returned the survey.

Eva Moya, UTEP associate professor in the department of social work, started looking at the food insecurity of the student population in 2019. In the first year of the research, 40% of students reported having food insecurity. In 2020 and 2021, as pandemic-related lockdowns occurred, Moya said the percentage dropped slightly.

Eva Moya is an associate professor in the Department of Social Work at the University of Texas at El Paso. (Christian Betancourt/El Paso Matters)

“Students had a little bit more access to food during COVID because they were primarily in their households,” she said. “Now what we saw in 2022 is revealing because the spike is back again, at 61%. That is huge. It’s twice as much as the data collected from the city of El Paso … that says that our students are struggling. Most likely, it has to do with income. It has to do with employment and the fact that food is expensive nowadays.”

Moya said she’s talked to students who, although going through tough financial times, feel awkward receiving help or taking it away from someone who might need it more.

“That element in that spirit keeps our students actually from reaching out and getting services,” she said. “So what I find myself saying (to them) is it’s OK, you know, we all find ourselves sometimes in trouble. We all could use a helping hand, so why not stop by the food pantry, see what’s available, and inform someone else about the resources that are available so that we can begin to break the stigma.”

Goodell said her organization focuses on fighting the stigma.

“We work with our volunteers and team members to be welcoming and friendly to people who come here because we know that we’re often meeting people on the worst days of their lives,” Goodell said. “If you can’t feed yourself, you can’t feed your children, things are pretty bad.”

Residents work their way through the El Pasoans Fighting Hunger bins to select the items they want. (Christian Betancourt/El Paso Matters)

Other interesting findings in the survey, according to Moya, were that about 32% of the students received emergency food from food banks, while only 59% knew the service existed. Thirty percent said accessing the food on campus was difficult, while 78% said there needed to be more information available.

“The reality is that a good number of our students are not using the services,” she said. “It’s also a significant reality that many of our students are heads of households. So they are struggling to make ends meet.”

As more data is collected, Moya said her department has started to act on the information. A student council was created six months ago with undergraduate, graduate and doctoral students to offer solutions to the problem.

“They have been observing and being critical and using the data to then bring recommendations to the administration,” she said. 

Some of the recommendations included better access and flexible hours at the food pantry at the university, removing the stigma of asking for help, having more produce and creating a food garden on campus.

“So they’re actually recommending that we find innovative ways to give rights to students, especially international students that need to get groceries,” she said. 

Another challenge that local food banks, soup kitchens, shelters, churches and agency partners face in El Paso is that about 98% of the food used at the food banks comes from elsewhere, with El Paso only producing 2%.

“I think that we need to find the means to do more,” Goodell said. “There is a major global food shortage right now that is impacting food banks across this country. And we’re not immune from that, especially as we don’t have a natural food base here.”

A second round of the survey is expected to be conducted in 2023.

Disclosure: El Paso Matters CEO Robert Moore is a board member for El Pasoans Fighting Hunger Food Bank. Moore was not involved in the reporting or editing of this story.

This story was co-published with Next City as part of our joint Equitable Cities Reporting Fellowship For Borderland Narratives.

Christian Betancourt is an urban affairs reporter at El Paso Matters and Equitable Cities Reporting Fellow for Borderland Narratives with Next City. Betancourt has been a local news reporter since 2012,...