Collaboration empowers ag entrepreneurship in K-12 students

  Tuesday, March 14, 2023

By News and Internal Communications

RIO GRANDE VALLEY, TEXAS – School children from the Mission school district have become empowered agents of change against food insecurity, harvesting crops they grew with the support of a partnership between the City of Mission Rotary Club and three departments at UTRGV. 

Over the 2021-2022 school year, 80 students – led by UTRGV alumnus Jose Escamilla in the Mission school district’s new F.A.R.M.E.R.S (Farmers, Agriculturists, Ranchers, Machinists, Engineers, Researchers, Suppliers) program – grew lettuce, oranges, papayas and zucchini in gardens at 14 elementary schools and two high schools. 

“During the COVID-19 quarantine, we realized that our community was in need as items flew off the shelves in supermarkets,” said Escamilla, who became a teacher and tennis coach with the Mission school district after graduating from UTRGV in Fall 2016 with a master’s degree in Agricultural, Environmental and Sustainability Sciences.

“As a collective, Mission CISD agreed on investing in future F.A.R.M.E.R.S. to contribute to the City of Mission’s overall sustainability,” he said.

A $50,574 Rotary Global Grant – “Growing Next Generation FARMERS” – was approved in October 2021 to equip the next generation of sustainable agriculturists with two greenhouses, an all-terrain vehicle and a drone ­used to collect data and spray pesticides.

Dr. Luis R. Torres-Hostos, dean of the UTRGV School of Social Work and president-elect of the City of Mission Rotary Club, said that the equipment was necessary, but the project is much bigger than an ATV or a drone.

“The power of this project is bringing new partners together and seeing the collective impact,” he said.

UTRGV faculty from three areas – social work, agroecology and business – contributed their expertise to change students’ perceptions of agriculture and the impact they can make in the Rio Grande Valley – where more children experience food insecurity than the state average. 

  • 20 percent of children in Texas are food insecure.
  • In 2020, Starr County had the highest rate of child food insecurity of the Valley, with 37.3 percent of children facing limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate foods ­or uncertain ability to acquire these foods in socially acceptable ways.
  • 9 percent of children in Willacy County were food insecure in 2020, as were 29.7 percent of children in Hidalgo County, and 28.3 percent in Cameron County.
  • Children in food-insecure households are at higher risk for asthma and behavior issues, such as depressive symptoms, compared with children in food-secure households.


In Mission classrooms and at the school gardens, UTRGV faculty and students taught the children about sustainable farming practices, careers in agriculture, and the socioeconomic value of fresh produce.

Dr. Alex Racelis and students from the Agroecology and Resilient Food Systems program of the UTRGV School of Earth, Environmental, and Marine Sciences taught students about the science of plant growth, new careers in agriculture and advances in crop science to achieve farming goals.

They assisted with the students’ weekend visits to the agroecology department’s five-acre Hub of Prosperity research and education farm located in Edinburg, which is serving as a model for the district’s planned 18-acre farm.

Once operational, the farm will subsidize food for MCISD’s child nutrition program and support local food banks.

In addition, plans are underway to help the students think about how the fruits of their efforts can be turned into an entrepreneurship opportunity.

Derek Abrams, a UTRGV associate professor of practice with the Robert C. Vackar College of Business and Entrepreneurship, said that might include selling produce at a farmer’s market or as part of a farmer’s cooperative, and using the produce to make and sell pickles, jams, jellies and salsa.

“In the Valley, there are many students with different risk factors that impact their well-being,” said Abrams, who also serves as associate director of the UTRGV Center for Innovation and Commercialization. “Through this program, they garner a sense of accomplishment from using the produce to help others in the community.”


The K-12 students also had lessons on how they can make an impact on the health of the general population via agricultural careers. UTRGV School of Social Work students explained the social relevance of agriculture and nutrition ­– like the correlations between negative health outcomes, food insecurity, and the inaccessibility of fresh produce.

Roughly half of the Rio Grande Valley is considered a Low-Income, Low-Access (LILA) census tract – areas formerly referred to as “food deserts” – where fresh, healthy food is not readily available.  The McAllen-Edinburg-Mission metro area ­– a LILA census tract ­– was recently listed as the “most obese” in America.  

Dr. Elaine Hernandez, guest lecturer in UTRGV’s Sustainable Community Health Promotion in Social Work graduate certificate program, said having these conversations followed by hands-on experiences directly tackling the issue gives children a chance to see themselves as powerful agents in their life journey.

“Students physically plant a seed and make that link to their own life,” said Hernandez, a longtime Rotarian and regional director in South Texas for Baylor University's Collaborative on Hunger and Poverty. “They’re in germination until graduation – a time of harvest.”

Using a methodology called “photo-voice,” social work students helped the young farmers document their changing attitudes about how food gets to their plates and communicate their plans for social change through the field of agriculture.

“Many of the Mission students are first- or second-generation immigrants, and some grew up in migrant farm families who have generational experiences that associated agriculture with poverty, travel and back-breaking labor in the field,” Torres-Hostos said. “But the agriculture of today isn’t the same as in the past.”

Students made posters that shared family histories, first-hand knowledge of agriculture, and entrepreneurial hopes. Those posters then were displayed at a UTRGV conference on nutrition and health, validating their newly developing interest in addressing hunger in the region.

The collaboration is scheduled to continue through June 2023, with more than 250 Mission student participants, though Abrams said it could become financially self-sufficient with a successful entrepreneurial component.

“This program could become a recurring opportunity for Mission CISD students well into the future,” he said.


The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley (UTRGV) was created by the Texas Legislature in 2013 as the first major public university of the 21st century in Texas. This transformative initiative provided the opportunity to expand educational opportunities in the Rio Grande Valley, including a new School of Medicine, and made it possible for residents of the region to benefit from the Permanent University Fund – a public endowment contributing support to the University of Texas System and other institutions.

UTRGV has campuses and off-campus research and teaching sites throughout the Rio Grande Valley including in Boca Chica Beach, Brownsville (formerly The University of Texas at Brownsville campus), Edinburg (formerly The University of Texas-Pan American campus), Harlingen, McAllen, Port Isabel, Rio Grande City, and South Padre Island. UTRGV, a comprehensive academic institution, enrolled its first class in the fall of 2015, and the School of Medicine welcomed its first class in the summer of 2016.