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Combating Food Insecurity Through Solidarity Economics

March 2019 - June 2020

Design co-created by Max Fridberg & Forrest Sparks

Note: This image is a visual representation of the strategy developed to leverage the economic power of anchor institutions to develop local solidarity economies from the bottom up. The strategy, a digital visual aid, and the research conducted is currently in the process of being published.


Identify the prevalence of food insecurity at The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley and prototype student-driven solutions that increase healthy food consumption on campus.


  • A pay-what-you-feel farmers market that served over 12,000 patrons

  • Scalable strategy for leveraging anchor institutions to co-create local solidarity economies

  • The systems design and institutional implementation for a sustainable food system to combat food insecurity


High rates of student food insecurity have been identified on many college campuses around the U.S. In the Rio Grande Valley, the statistics regarding determents of health are some of the worst in the nation.

  • 30.7% of adults in the RGV are diabetic as compared to 12.3% nationwide (Fisher-Hoch et al. 2012, CDC 2020)

  • McAllen-Edinburg-Mission area is ranked the most overweight and obese areas in America, with 36.9% of the adult population being physically inactive and 44.9% considered obese (McCann, 2021)

  • 52% of the RGV is considered a food desert (Texas A&M University, 2019)

  • In 2019, 25.5% - 32.5% of RGV residents lived under the poverty line as compared to 10.5% nationwide (United States Census Bureau, 2019)

Food insecurity is defined as the disruption of food intake or eating patterns because of a lack of monetary and other resources. Beyond the definition, there are human behavior and environmental factors that add further complexity to the issue.


The Office for Sustainability brought me on as the Lead Designer/Co-Principle Investigator to conduct the research and provide potential solutions to prototype. I was appointed three graduate Sustainability Fellows to help throughout the design process.


Through our meeting with the Vice President of Graduate Studies, we gained a greater understanding of his vision for this project.

  • Collect data to assess current campus food insecurity rates

  • Investigate student-led solutions

  • Increase fresh produce provided on campus

  • Create a greater culture of healthy eating on campus

Background Research

We researched and conducted interviews with the different stakeholders and resources on and off campus.

  • The Food Pantry

  • Student Union

  • Dining Hall

  • Campus Community Garden

  • Baptist Student Ministries (BSM)- provides free lunch to students once a week off-campus

  • The Environmental Awareness Club- organizes farmers markets periodically

  • Food insecurity expert Elaine Hernandez Ph.D. with the Baylor Texas Hunger Initiative

  • Restaurants around the university

Interview with Elaine Hernandez Ph.D. with the Baylor Texas Hunger Initiative

Primary Research


Over 2700 surveys (approximately 10% of the student population) were collected. The 10-question FDA Adult Food Security Survey was used to assess students' food security status along with 30 demographic and behavioral questions.


8 semi-structured interviews were conducted with food insecure students as determined by the survey; four were students that had used the food pantry and the other four were students that had not.

Key Findings

  • 44.2% of the students surveyed were food insecure

  • 44.4% of the students were unaware of the food pantry.

  • Unawareness was higher for food-insecure students, 46.1%

  • There was a lack of capacity to coordinate community garden produce to be distributed

  • Faculty can be effective food pantry promoters

The barriers that students face in using the Food Pantry include:

  • Awareness

  • No Parking

  • Hours of operation

  • Lack of fresh produce

  • Embarrassment and stigma

We were able to capture the root of the stigmas in our qualitative interviews. The Food

Pantry is oftentimes associated with the negative societal perceptions of living in poverty. We started to identify two patterns that this perception caused.

Not wanting to take away food from others in need

Even when students scored on the lower end of the food security scale, they still felt that someone else may need it more. There is an idea that one must hit absolute rock bottom financially before asking for help.

When students are truly in need of the Food Pantry, they perceive themselves as failures

The association of failing with the Food Pantry could be partially responsible for only 29.6% of food-insecure students using the pantry. However, we also found that normalizing food insecurity can help defeat the stigma and allow students to receive the help they need free of shame.

With these insights, we created the following POV statements to guide our efforts to redesign the campus for greater food security.

How might we create or adjust food programs to provide access to nutritious foods for students in need without the stigma?


Partnering with the multiple offices on campus, the university has launched a Food Security Initiative. This includes a weekly produce market that works with local farmers to provide produce on a "pay what you feel" price system. The market also serves as a launching pad for the sale of healthy prepared meals on campus using produce grown from the community garden. In the first four weeks, the program had served 575 people, proving its need and desirability. The initiative has continued through the pandemic and served over 12,000 individuals.

The verbiage "pay what you feel" was an iteration from "pay what you can" to help invoke an emotional connection for customers that pay more are supporting those who may need to pay less. Also, "pay what you can" could be associated with financial insecurity, further perpetuating the stigma that was found at the food pantry; yet the word "feel" helps to empower the customer with choice and autonomy.

Further Prototypes

Systems acupuncture is an effective strategy and framework to employ when approaching a wicked problem of food insecurity. Targeted interventions introduced at different leverage points within a system break down the multi-dimensional issue into tangible strategies. While the rise of COVID-19 invoked a sense of urgency and focus that enabled the development of the pay-what-you-feel farmers market, it was not the only opportunity that the research team identified. As students return to campus, other experiments can be tested to increase food security.

Re-envision the beneficiary experience of the Food Pantry

While we were able to grant the pantry with parking spaces, to change the stigma, there needs to be a total revamp of the pantry experience. This transformation would include a new location in a central part of the campus to increase awareness, a grocery store shopping user experience, a system for students to volunteer with the farmers market and community garden, and an increase in healthy produce provided to students.

Faculty food security promoters

The research showed that leveraging the faculty’s relationships and consistent interaction with students was a great way to build awareness and normalize the use of the food pantry. Creating a policy and marketing material for professors to make announcements about the different resources available can help to build awareness while helping to eliminate the stigma.

Donating unused dining hall meal swipes

Our research found that less than 50% of meal swipes purchased were being used in the dining hall. This led us to Swipe Out Hunger, a national nonprofit that enables students to donate their unused meal swipes to students in need. UTRGV is now taking the first steps to pilot this effort with Sodexo.

Redistribute catering leftovers

Sodexo caters to different events happening on campus and often has leftover food at the end of the event. We suggested creating a phone bank that can be used to communicate with students when they have food available so it can be picked up.

Food Pantry online ordering and pick-up service

To serve students whose schedules did not align with the Food Pantry’s operating hours we suggested creating an online ordering service and partnering with other offices on campus that have extended hours so students can pick up their bags when it works for their schedule.


Working within a large institution with a large array of stakeholders has helped me to develop my ability to create win-win scenarios. Every stakeholder has their own responsibilities and priorities and it was imperative to listen to their needs and concerns to co-create solutions, rather than insist on the implementation of our team’s idea.

I learned a great deal about the details of designing research methods, creating clear and direct research questions, and organizing and synthesizing data. A few of the qualitative questions I created were not as useful as I initially thought, or were difficult to analyze and gain tangible insights. In the future, I will take more time in defining the purpose of each question, and how the design of the question will affect the ease of my analysis.


  • Fisher-Hoch, Susan P, Kristina P Vatcheva, Susan T Laing, M Monir Hossain, M Hossein Rahbar, Craig L Hanis, H Shelton Brown, Anne R Rentfro, Belinda M Reininger , and Joseph B McCormick. “Missed Opportunities for Diagnosis and Treatment of Diabetes, Hypertension, AND Hypercholesterolemia in a Mexican American Population, Cameron COUNTY Hispanic Cohort, 2003–2008.” Preventing Chronic Disease 9, no. 135`` (August 2, 2012).

  • McCann, Adam. “Https://” WalletHub. WalletHub, March 3, 2021.

  • Texas A&M University Health Science Center. “Healthy South Texas Tackles Rio Grande Valley Food Deserts.” Texas A&M Today. Texas A&M, April 30, 2019.

  • United States Census Bureau. United States Census Bureau. Accessed 15AD.,hidalgocountytexas,willacycountytexas,cameroncountytexas/PST045219.


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