Farmers markets connote fresh, organic, farm-to-table ingredients and personal relationships between purveyors and consumers. That’s why one student thought farmers market should be in the title of the monthly UNLV Food Pantry distribution event she started more than one year ago.
Nutrition sciences major CindyRomina Ballesteros-Paniagua conceived of the idea along with a former Food Pantry coordinator. She then wrote a proposal to turn the idea into reality through an independent study course. The result is the Farmers Market Community Food Distribution Monthly Event, a partnership between the UNLV School of Integrated Health Sciences and Three Square food bank.
Fruits, vegetables, meats, dairy products as well as more typical shelf-stable items are distributed on the second Saturday of the month in Lot T in front of the Stan Fulton Building.
“We wanted to make something catchy and something that sounded really nice. We were highlighting fresh produce and fresh food items. The only difference is our farmers market is free of cost compared to other farmers markets,” said Ballesteros-Paniagua, a recipient of a UNLV Community Engagement 2023 Student Service Award for her work.
Reaching Into the Surrounding Community
Since 2010, the Food Pantry has helped members of the campus community with food insecurity — a problem exacerbated by the pandemic — but was unable to help the surrounding neighborhood until the monthly distribution event.
Ballesteros-Paniagua’s effort, which started in February 2022, has helped 950 students, 178 staff and faculty members, and 823 non-UNLV community members — restocking kitchens in 1,951 households with 6,500 individuals. The most people helped, by far, reside in the 89119 ZIP code, which includes the University District. It is among the valley neighborhoods with the highest food insecurity rates (18.7 percent, according to a 2018 Three Square map).
“I didn’t know what food insecurity was prior to volunteering at the food pantry. As I’ve been working here, I definitely have seen the effects of food insecurity and how we’ve been able to help combat that issue,” said Ballesteros-Paniagua, who began volunteering at the Food Pantry, a part of the School of Integrated Health Sciences, in March 2021.
Organizers distribute fliers and post on social media for promotion. Three Square delivers food to campus on the morning of the event. Among other campus and community volunteers, students studying nutrition offer advice to clients, who can walk in or drive up to the tents set up in the parking lot. Since February, more than a dozen community organizations have been on hand to create a mini health fair with information about available resources.
Ballesteros-Paniagua, a graduate of Palo Verde High School, said her parents — who immigrated from Iramuco, Guanajuato, Mexico, to the U.S. before she was born — instilled in her a passion for helping people. She has even developed relationships with those who routinely use the Food Pantry and come to the distribution event, gaining satisfaction seeing newborns become toddlers since she has been involved.
“I’ve always wanted to help other people. That’s definitely one of my callings here on Earth. It just warms my heart,” Ballesteros-Paniagua said.
Ballesteros-Paniagua, set to graduate this spring, plans to pursue a master’s degree and a career as a registered dietitian. She is confident that the farmers market event has enough momentum to continue monthly for as long as it’s needed.
In nominating her for the award, professor Laura J. Kuskall, wrote, “In my 25-plus years of university teaching I have never known an undergraduate student to exhibit as impressive a combination of high intelligence, dedication, compassion, devotion to community service, and leadership as Romina has demonstrated during her tenure at UNLV. Romina doesn’t just volunteer, she leads!”
The UNLV office of government and community engagement administers four university-wide awards each academic year to recognize campus individuals for their exceptional community engagement in the areas of service learning, community-based research, faculty/staff community outreach, and student service.