In fall of 2019, UConn’s Division of Student Affairs and the Office of the Provost conducted a study based on a mandate by the Connecticut General Assembly to investigate the extent of food insecurity on UConn campuses. Of those who completed the survey, which was sent to all undergraduate students via their UConn emails, 35% of respondents from UConn Storrs identified either as “very low food secure” or “low food secure.”
“If 35% of UConn identifies as anything, any sort of health situation, it would be a crisis, you would be hearing about it,” Ethan Werstler — a fifth-semester political science and communications major, as well as the founder of Husky Market, a student trustee and the food insecurity coordinator for the Undergraduate Student Government (USG) — said. “To us, after that survey came out, it was clear as day what needed to happen.”
““If 35% of UConn identifies as anything, any sort of health situation, it would be a crisis, you would be hearing about it, to us, after that survey came out, it was clear as day what needed to happen.”
After the study was concluded and the results were taken under consideration, plans were made to create a food pantry on campus. But unfortunately, those plans never came to fruition.
“So I said I’m sick of waiting, I have the financial resources — USG has the financial resources — to do something about this,” Werstler said. “I’m tired of bringing truth to power, when we have power within ourselves.”
Werstler and interim USG President William Schad, a fifth-semester political science major, decided to take action in their own hands during the spring of 2020. And so they created Husky Market as a way to get food to the students who need it most.
“I fundamentally believe students cannot learn if they’re not eating,” Werstler said. “No student should be thinking about where they’re going to get their next meal from. They should be thinking about their midterm exams or how to stay safe from COVID-19, and that sort of stuff.”
“No student should be thinking about where they’re going to get their next meal from. They should be thinking about their midterm exams or how to stay safe from COVID-19, and that sort of stuff.”
Initially, Schad and Werstler thought they could buy a large amount of food and hand it out to the 30 or 40 people they expected to show up. With the donations they manage to get from the community, as well as USG contributions, they were able to purchase approximately $1,500 worth of food to give away to students. Unfortunately, instead of just 40 or so people, 300 showed up and there wasn’t enough food to go around.
“That tells us that: One, there’s a lot of food insecurity on campus and two, we need to be more intentional with our marketing; we need to be more intentional with our service,” Werstler said. “Folks walked away from that day who were food insecure and they didn’t get anything, because it was all out by then. It was all out by 30 minutes, 40 minutes.”
With this in mind, Husky Market was forced to evolve into something that could accommodate for both a larger number of students, as well as for the students who actually need it the most. This semester, they are using a comprehensive application process that will help support the most food insecure students from the university. In order to qualify, students need to fulfill certain requirements.
First of all, applicants need to be undergraduate students at UConn Storrs, since it is the undergraduate fees for USG that are paying for the program. And although Husky Market’s funds are greatly expanded this semester — from $1,500 to $60,000 — they can still only accommodate approximately 200 students. If more than 200 sign up, only the 200 most food insecure of those students will be able to receive Husky Market’s services.
“We understand that food insecurity appears on a spectrum,” Werstler said. “It’s not that you are food insecure or you’re not food insecure. It looks very different and everybody falls in different points upon that spectrum. Our challenge is: How can we create an application that encourages people to be honest — we want people to be honest —, encourages people to really feel comfortable expressing their level of need, which I understand to be a vulnerable experience.”
Those 200 people who qualify for the service will receive a $30 to $50 gift card in the mail every week for six weeks. On the application, students can request either a gift card from Price Chopper, Stop & Shop or Big Y, so that they are able to get food from whatever grocery store is most convenient for them. In addition to this, students will receive a recommended shopping list, created by the joint efforts of Minority Health Matters and Nutrition Club, to use as a resource, as well as a few nutritious recipes based on the contents of the shopping list.
“We understand that food insecurity isn’t just about not having the financial resources, it’s also having the educational resources to know what you should even buy,” Werstler said.
“We understand that food insecurity isn’t just about not having the financial resources, it’s also having the educational resources to know what you should even buy.”
To apply for the program, students can find the application on the USG website. All they have to do is click on the “Committees” tab, select “Student Services” and they will see the link to the application on the right-hand side under “Initiatives.” USG and UConnPIRG also have links to the application on all forms of their social media.
“The application itself takes five minutes,” Werstler said. “We expect you to be honest and transparent in those five minutes. Five minutes is all it really takes to get the services that you need.”
Although Werstler and Schad hope to make a difference for some UConn Storrs students, they understand that what they’re doing won’t end food insecurity on campus.
“Our program isn’t going to end food insecurity on college campuses,” Werstler said. “Our program isn’t going to save anybody. We need institutional systemic change that addresses the reason why food insecurity exists, that’s what’s going to save this school from food insecurity. That’s what’s going to save the country from the epidemic of food insecurity on college campuses. What we’re going to do, is we’re going to help out a little bit.”
Werstler hopes to demonstrate the degree in which students can help each other, with this program made by students for students. But ultimately, he believes it is the government and UConn’s job, not an undergraduate’s, to take care of issues like this.
“It is a basic human right to have food on the table, so that you can go out and you can achieve whatever you want — whether that be educational experience, work experience or just life,” Werstler said.
“It is a basic human right to have food on the table, so that you can go out and you can achieve whatever you want — whether that be educational experience, work experience or just life.”
Werstler intends to continue the program for every semester he has left at UConn, and hopes it will only grow over the years. He is very thankful for the support of student leaders and advocates from groups like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, cultural centers, UConnPIRG, USG, Minority Health Matters and Nutrition Club. Their efforts as student organizations will help give 200 students the means in which to escape food insecurity for six weeks, and likely beyond in subsequent semesters.
Werstler wanted to leave a message for students facing food insecurity.
“You’re not alone,” Werstler said. “There are students on this campus who are just like you. And even if it’s as simple as you are skipping a meal every once in awhile, or you are eating ramen every night in your dorm room, that’s food insecurity. And that’s an issue we care about. We care about you, and I want you to submit that application. I want to try and do everything I can to make sure that you have $30 to $50 a week for six weeks to be able to buy the nutritious food that not only you deserve, but that every student on this campus deserves.”