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Exchange University Food Market

Chelsea Markcray, a student worker, stocks food from a new delivery at a free market at the University of Houston-Downtown campus in Houston.

Perusing the shelves stacked with boxes of Cheddar Nuts, chocolate protein powder and sacks of beans, Shey-Marie Posey tried to keep in mind what she, her mother and her five siblings would need for the week.

The Houston Chronicle reports the first time she visited the University of Houston-Downtown's food market, she was overwhelmed at how much she could take home for free.

"I was able to get a lot of food," the 26-year-old pre-pharmacy student said. This time would be no different.

Posey packed a red basket and a cardboard box with bleach, paper towels, Gatorade and Cutie mandarins, among other things, and unloaded them onto the market counter where student workers calculated the weight. And after packing the groceries into big bags, Posey left with her arms full and her pocketbook no lighter.

Like Posey, hundreds of UHD students are visiting the campus' food market to shop weekly for fresh produce, nonperishable goods, water, non-alcoholic beverages, toiletries, diapers and more for free thanks to the college's food scholarship program. As a result, students are cutting down on grocery costs. They're helping their families, and they're focusing more on their education during a time when many college students are wondering where their next meal will come from. Some say the program could be a model for colleges around the country.

Last fall, nearly half of 86,000 students surveyed at 123 colleges around the country said they were "food insecure" or didn't have enough money to pay for food to eat in the prior 30 days, according to the Hope Center for College, Community and Justice, a research center at Temple University. And this summer, food was considered the biggest spending category for student loans ahead of monthly bills and housing costs, according to the Student Loan Hero Survey.

For many UHD students, the campus's food market, supplied by the Houston Food Bank, has been a saving grace.

"It's helpful for students who ... might not have the money they need to purchase food," Posey said of UHD's market, adding that it saves her up to $140 a month on groceries. "This makes it a little easier on (students) to focus on school and not worry about having to go make more money."

UHD, a commuter college with more than 14,000 students, partnered with the Houston Food Bank starting in 2016 to create the food scholarship market program with hopes of helping students beyond financial aid, according to Tremaine Kwasikpui, director of student activities.

Kwasikpui said that after researching and shadowing other markets and food pantries in the area, the school settled on offering scholarships to students with 30 to 89 credit hours — reasoning that this was the largest population at the time that needed to graduate but might face hurdles.

"A lot of people see students drop out of school and talk about financial aid, but it's not always financial aid. It's financial issues," Kwasikpui said. "And so if we can take away one of those financial issues with food, we're excited to do so."

The university accepted 300 of the 600 students who applied for the food scholarship. Houston Food Bank assisted in equipping the market with shelving and freezers, trained university staff and student workers to help operate it, and agreed to supply the university with the food and items that students would take home each week at no cost.

The market opened post-Hurricane Harvey in 2017, offering students $60 worth of food per credit hour.

The program became a success, according to Kwasikpui. In October 2018, UHD was named Houston Food Bank's Higher Education Partner of the Year, and reports show that around 67 percent of students who had received the scholarship in the fall were using the market.

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And yet a few hundred students remained on the wait list, Kwasikpui said. Wanting to do more, the university began accepting all students who applied for the program into the market last spring.

"It really was a heartfelt kind of decision and one to make sure that we were meeting the needs of all students," Kwasikpui said.

More than 800 students have applied for the food market and shopped there during the spring semester, with the option to take home up to 40 pounds of food each week, Kwasikpui said. The market, which runs year-round, has also expanded its services, taking in deliveries twice a week and offering a program that allows students to list an individual who can shop on their behalf. Students can also shop at any food bank or pantry within the Houston Food Bank network using their information, including their student ID or date of birth, and can ask the market to order specific items that they need.

"We have to stress: It's not need-based. It's not a pantry," Kwasikpui said. "It's a food market. Need or not, it's here, and we want you to use it."

Two siblings who are UHD students — Juan Chavez, 18, and Gabriela Orruego, 22 — shop at the market at least once a week. They aim to get pricier items such as cleaning supplies, which can alleviate grocery costs, as well as canned goods, fresh fruits and vegetables to take home to their mother.

"It's for her mostly," Orruego said. But "it helps us. She can use it to cook."

Daisy Garay, 20, a UHD student studying social work, said she also shops for groceries for her family.

"I look for anything, really," she said — snacks for her younger siblings, fresh vegetables or ingredients for her mom to help make dinner, and cleaning supplies for their home. Garay, Chavez and Orruego say shopping at the food market can save each of them at least $50 a week.

"Anything that I take is already an extra help," Garay said.

Reginald Young, senior director of strategic partnerships at the Houston Food Bank, said that of the Houston Food Bank's operations in the region, UHD is the only one located at a four-year college and one of the most utilized. Young said that makes it an ideal model for other institutions locally and across the country.

"We've talked about it nationally at conferences. It is a unique concept," Young said. But the primary goal, he said, is not just providing food — it's getting students to graduate.

UHD plans to conduct a study of the food market, assessing how free and convenient access to food might affect students — from grade point averages to credit hours attempted and graduation rates.

"There are so many other issues that affect the student's success outside of going to class. Food in this setting is kind of like a subsidy," Young said. "It's a mean of support."

Students are already seeing the effects. "It's really great that they opened it to everyone, and they were willing to do this after Harvey," Orreugo said. "They're actually helping."

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Entertainment Editor/Features Reporter

Eloise is A&E Editor and a food, entertainment and features writer for The Times, subjects she has covered for over two decades in and around the Region. She was the youngest of eight in a Chicago household filled with fantastic cooks and artists.