UH Coogs Cooking Up Plan to Address Food Insecurity in Third Ward

Honors College Students Earn Awards to Help Launch Cougar Chefs Program in Fall

The University of Houston is based in one of the city’s most storied neighborhoods – the Third Ward. This community has long held a special place in Houston’s history, but its residents are often at a loss when it comes to accessing nutritional meals. In essence, many Third Ward residents face food insecurity – or lack of access to adequate food due to insufficient resources or income.

Leave it to the creativity of Cougars from UH’s Honors College to address this problem and provide a prospective solution.

A student team – comprised of members of UH’s Bonner Leaders Program – emerged victorious in a college video competition sponsored by the Campus Kitchens Project. The video – shot and edited by freshman Naina Sakruti – features faculty and students laying the groundwork for the project Cougar Chefs. This initiative is aimed at creating strategic community partnerships and promoting nutrition education. The video was among those receiving the highest number of votes. For its efforts, the team earned $5,000 to use toward creating a campus kitchen that would provide healthy meals to members of the community.

This victory certainly bolstered students’ efforts in counteracting food insecurity within the Third Ward. Another encouraging endorsement came when two of its members, senior Ton La Jr. and freshman Brinda Penmetsa, outlined the Cougar Chefs project at the recent Clinton Global Initiative University meeting at the University of Miami. They were among students from across the nation who competed in the Resolutions Project Social Venture Challenge. The competition offers college students opportunities to address problems faced by communities.

Following extensive poster and PowerPoint presentations, La and Penmetsa were notified that they were among the competition’s winning teams. Their victory earned an additional grant to apply toward Cougar Chefs, and they both have been named Resolution Fellows.

La and Penmetsa are the first Resolution Fellows in Texas and were selected from a field of 33 finalists. This year, 191 teams entered the Resoulutions competition.

“I'm excited we won the $5,000 from the Campus Kitchens video contest, and that we were selected as Resolution Project winners,” Penmetsa said. “But this is not my victory. This is a victory for the Bonner Leaders Program. As we move forward, it will be a victory for the people of Houston.”

Penmetsa, La and teammates now must work to launch Cougar Chefs by fall. The program, La said, is focused on access and education. Presently, the Cougar Chefs concept will focus on delivering healthy meals to those in need, as well as hosting workshops aimed at teaching Third Ward residents about nutrition. He added that prospective campus and community partners in these efforts are being identified.

Based on research conducted by La and teammates, access to food in the Third Ward is often limited to fast food restaurants and convenience stores. While these outlets offer inexpensive offerings, they don’t provide nutritious meal options, La said.

“About 47 percent of Third Ward residents live in poverty, so the common sense option is to pick up fast food for the family on the way home from work,” he said.

Cheap meals from chain restaurants can translate into unhealthy meals, La added. In his research, La discovered that within the Third Ward, death rates from heart disease and stroke exceed those in the city of Houston.

“With UH located in the Third Ward, we feel that it’s our responsibility to help our neighbors,” he said. “Third Ward residents know where to get food. The problem is that most of the time it’s lacking in nutrition.”

The Cougar Chefs initiative is reflective of the Honors College philosophy of “educating for success that lasts a lifetime.” Projects such as this go far beyond grade point averages, said Andrew Hamilton, associate dean of the Honors College.

“At the Honors College, we’ve challenged these students to use the intellectual resources available to them, as well as their own ingenuity to address a very serious problem,” Hamilton said. “So far, so good! They’re doing great things already and living up to their roles as leaders on campus and in the community.”

Other members of the team overseeing the Cougar Chefs initiative include freshmen Joshua Monsivais and Dave Giang.

To view the group’s video submitted for the Campus Kitchens competition, view this page.

The Campus Kitchens Project is a national organization that empowers student volunteers to fight hunger in their communities. It works with 42 university and high school campuses across the country to help provide unused food from dining halls, grocery stores, restaurants, and farmers’ markets to local agencies serving those in need. In running these community kitchens, students develop entrepreneurial and leadership skills and deepen relationships with their respective communities. Universities’ campus kitchens not only provide meals, they engage communities through educational programming, gardening initiatives, special events and other projects. For more details on the Campus Kitchen Project, visit www.campuskitchens.org.

Based in the Honors College, the Bonner Leaders Program connects students with community service opportunities. The program is open to all UH students and allows them to work alongside community members to address the economic, social and cultural challenges facing the city. For more details, visit the Bonner Leaders Program’s website.

The Honors College at UH is a hub of excellence that serves the needs of gifted undergraduates in more than 100 fields of study and reflects the rich diversity of the University of Houston in its courses, faculty and students. For over 50 years, the Honors College has offered students the best of both worlds: the advantages of a small college together with the comprehensive resources and rich diversity of a large university. For more information about the Honors College, visit http://TheHonorsCollege.com.