When Daniel Guerra was an elementary student, he remembers his mom taking him to get free lunch with his sister at school during the summer. Guerra, who is now a chef in El Paso Community College’s (EPCC) Culinary Arts Program, says this experience, combined with knowing that hunger also affects college students too, inspired him to create Chefs Share along with other chefs in the program. For the past month, this program has been preparing and delivering meals to EPCC students in need.
EPCC knows that food insecurity is a common challenge faced by college students even during regular times. Guerra explained that because of the COVID-19 pandemic that students have even greater need intensified by the inability to gather resources, including money for food. As a result, he and the other chefs knew they needed to do something to help. Chef Patrick Rosser was among the first to volunteer when he knew he had a chance to help EPCC students. He says he was overwhelmed by the willingness of faculty and staff to put in hours of hard work to make this happen. “With so many people dealing with the extremely negative consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic, I’m honored to help in some small manner,” Chef Rosser said.
As a result, more than seven other Culinary Arts Program faculty and staff jumped into action. They developed a plan to prepare meals and food care packages for students. They also partnered with the Tejano Food Pantry which was created by students in EPCC’s Student Government Association for students in order to address food insecurity. The Tejano Food Pantry staff is the point of contact for Chefs Share meal distribution. So far, they have reached out to hundreds of students to check on them and let them know about program. “When we were approached by the chefs for this initiative, it was seen as another opportunity to continuously advocate for students,” Arvis Jones, Director of Student Leadership and Campus Life, said. “Our goal is to help students through this crisis as much as we can.”
Each week the chefs prepare boxed meals along with a care package of snacks and baked goods. Since the program started in late March, more than 500 pounds of food has been prepared. The chefs personally deliver all the meals themselves already logging more than 1,000 miles across the county from Red Sands, to Tornillo to Canutillo. Students are happy and relieved to see them arrive. Jennifer, who only wanted to share her first name, is in her second semester at EPCC. She works, is a single mom to a 3-year-old son and is a full-time student. She says it is a struggle to make ends meet during normal circumstances, but that it has been even harder after she lost her job due to COVID-19 closures. “When I got the call from EPCC, I felt like someone cared,” Jennifer said. “When the chefs showed up with a meal for my son and I, that was one less thing I had to worry about that day.”
Making that difference and giving back is what drives the chefs to do as much as they can. “When there are hungry students suffering through a pandemic, in need of a delicious cooked meal, that is when a chef should step in and help out,” Chef Andres Diaz said. “While I can’t contribute to the front lines in the medical field, this is a way I can use my skill set to make a difference.”
The EPCC Culinary Arts Program has a long history of making a difference by giving back and supporting the community in times of need. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, chefs, along with their students, volunteered to prepare meals for evacuees sheltered at the convention center. They’ve prepared Thanksgiving Dinners for youth at the Child Crisis Center, supported the Ronald McDonald House, Villa Maria and countless other organizations. EPCC chefs and students regularly volunteer their time and talent in many ways. “It’s rewarding to be able to help our community when it needs it the most,” Ezequiel Gutierrez, Culinary Arts Lab Assistant said.
To sustain this critical effort, EPCC Chefs have been relying on the generosity of program partners like Sysco and others who have donated product to make the meals possible along with monetary donations from individuals. The Foundation for EPCC has started the StayStrong Student Emergency fund which provides support for students. To donate, visit go.epcc.edu/GiveNow and select the “StayStrong Fund”. Donations to support Chefs Share can be made by scrolling down to the “EPCC Cares, Chefs Share” fund.
Chef Guerra says the project is an important opportunity for the chefs to make an impact and put their skills to good use. More than 200 meals have been made and delivered so far. From chicken, green chile and cheese on house made bread, served with chips and salad to roasted chicken, macaroni and cheese along with stewed tomatoes and cobbler, each meal is prepared with care. With continued support from community donations, Guerra hopes the program can serve more students. Reflecting on his childhood experience and the impact he can make now, Guerra says, “it’s my turn to pay it forward.”
Today, EPCC serves more than 28,500 students and offers 145 degree and certificate programs. The college remains focused on engaging students, growing community partnerships and fostering excellence. By creating a college-going culture and implementing innovative student success initiatives, EPCC is transforming the pathway to higher education and developing a better prepared workforce for our region.