Husky Market started as a couple thousand-dollars-worth of groceries purchased to hand out at the student union.
It would have stayed that way if it wasn’t for Covid-19 and a group of students who saw a need to do more.
“I didn’t understand how widespread it was but I did understand it was prevalent and it was here,” said Mason Holland.
Holland isn’t just the student body president at the University of Connecticut, he’s also someone who at times hasn’t known where his next meal was going to come from.
“It’s scary and it’s definitely scary in a place where a lot of students do know,” said Holland.
All students pay a $90 activity fee. UConn’s student government uses part of the money it receives from that fee to fund Husky Market. Right before the pandemic the group was giving out groceries, but when Covid canceled campus activities the program went digital. In fall of 2020, 150 students receive $300 gift cards to local grocery stores. The next spring, 600 students benefited. This fall, other student organizations elected to donate and helped raise $345,000, enough to help more than one-thousand students.
“Right now on campus there are students cutting meals, they’re eating ramen every night in their dorm room,” said Ethan Werstler, Huskey Market founder.
Werstler came up with the idea last year. He said the university’s food insecurity programs aren’t going far enough. He pointed to a 2019 survey by the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity that showed the university’s programs were disproportionate to the need.
“Students aren’t learning when they’re not eating and every student deserves a chance at their education that they’re paying so much money for.”
Students say the program benefits more than just the students but often their families during school breaks.
“I know students who got their Husky Market gift card and they not only got food for themselves but they got food for their brothers and sisters and that’s the type of power a program like this has,” said Holland.
Some Covid related changes to federal financial aid rules allowed students to receive the gift cards without affecting their scholarships and grants.
As we emerge from the pandemic those rules could change leaving the future of the program uncertain.
The students have reached out to the major grocery store chains for a financial partnership.
Nathan-Craig Machado works two on-campus jobs to support himself. He said, when Covid hit students were sent home and that work dried up.
“It was pretty tough to get some money,” recalled Machado. “I was doing some shoe cleaning for a little bit, shoe restoration.”
The student-run Husky Market helped fill the gap.
“College students are going hungry and they don’t have enough food,” said Werstler. “Some students may be able to buy ramen every night to make ends meet but that’s not healthy.”
This semester student groups at all regional campuses are participating as well.
“Our regional campuses especially are students who have lower income and experience these problems at a greater level,” explained Srimayi Chaturvedula, Hunger and Homelessness Campaign coordinator.
While funding for the program has grown as more campus groups have chosen to participate, so has the need. All 150 students who applied the first round received a gift card. Now, in its third round, 1,100 students have applied.
“We can’t do a program like this again with giving away $345,000. We just can’t do it,” said Werstler.
“This isn’t something that students should be doing feeding other students, giving them money for food. That’s not our job,” Chaturvedula added.
Both students say their efforts to get the University on board have been met with resistance. School officials point to the programs they already have in place to help fight food insecurity like UConn Swipes.
“It’s just not enough. And, the fact that I’m having to put a thousand gift cards in a thousand envelopes and send them out should be indication of that,” Werstler pointed out.
Holland recalled how it felt not knowing where his next meal was going to come from.
“It makes things feel a bit isolated in a sense,” he said.
Machado, who is from New York, but stays in an apartment in Windsor with his aunt, uncle, and cousins, says the gift card eased their financial burden as well.
“It was great cause I got to get food for the whole family,” he said.