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Campus addresses food insecurity with at-cost grocery store

With no affordable, walkable grocery stores near campus, MIT opens TechMart for a convenient place for students to buy low-cost ingredients.

Boston’s Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) is addressing concerns about a food desert for on-campus students who cook by opening TechMart, an at-cost grocery store, subsidized by their dining program. It all started when students formed the Food Insecurity Solutions Working Group last year to address students’ lack of access to a sufficient quantity of affordable, nutritious food. According to their report, MIT students were finding it challenging to set aside the time to make it to grocery stores, which require a not-so-convenient shuttle ride due to distance and are often very expensive.

In search of the best model for MIT, the group launched an advisory council that visited other universities with student-run solutions to food insecurity such as Cornell. “Ultimately, the advisory council did not want to open a food pantry, because they wanted to offer a desirable range of products,” says Mark Hayes, MIT’s director of campus dining, “and pantries are often stocked by donated food of which you have no control. Around the same time, one of the last remaining walkable grocery stores closed so the need for a new option was even more pronounced.”

In September, TechMart opened on the second floor of Walker Memorial and shares space with Rebecca’s Café. By sharing the location – and overhead expenses – of the popular cafe, TechMart is able to offer groceries at-cost. “The café side is a normal café operation with your typical pricing and items you'd find on a campus,” explains Hayes. “And the grocery side is an at-cost side geared toward our undergraduate and graduate students.”

Initially, the store stocked upward of 60 items but now sells close to 125. “We came up with a wish list of products we thought it should carry and then the advisory committee ran it by students across campus,” says Hayes. “We have a lot of cook-for-yourself residence halls on campus with full kitchens and shared kitchens so we knew we needed staples. TechMart’s not about stocking potato chips and other junk. It’s about offering a convenient location to buy very fresh fruit and vegetables, frozen vegetables, dairy products, rice, grains and flours – and do so very affordably.”

As an at-cost grocer, TechMart’s goal is to sell items at or below comparable items locally. For example, a half-gallon of milk is priced at $2.26, loaf of bread is $1.50, natural peanut butter is $3.40, pasta is $1.49, a dozen eggs is $1.79 and a bag of natural granola $3.51. “The fresh fruits and vegetables and dairy sell out the quickest,” says Hayes. “We might be adding another refrigerator unit just for vegetables and fruit. Again, the idea was to provide nutritious ingredients to make complete meals out of so it’s a good sign that we’re headed in the right direction.”

In addition to accepting cash, credit cards and TechCash, TechMart accepts dining dollars, which if used, get students a 5-percent discount. “If students use dining dollars, they’re actually getting those products for even less than we're bringing them in for with that discount.”

Whether it’s the low cost or the convenient location, Hayes says students’ reaction to the store has been very positive with 400-plus students shopping there Monday through Friday. “It’s actually one of the most active comment card locations,” says Hayes. “I'd say 99.9 percent of the cards have been requests for products or product suggestions.”

With only a few months in operation, Hayes says they are still figuring out what’s best in terms of hours of operations. “In the beginning, we thought students would do more late-night shopping when, in fact, they are coming in earlier. We’re in the process of shifting that to meet demand.” The store is currently open 3 p.m. to 11 p.m., Monday through Friday.

While working out what’s best for students at MIT, Hayes advises that any campus looking to launch a similar store would be wise to engage students immediately in the process. “Tap into undergrads and graduates or student government, because they're going to really understand what they need and they're going to actually be the best marketing group you have,” says Hayes. “Involve them from day one.”

In addition to TechMart, MIT dining program is also partnering with students in the Food Insecurity Solutions Working Group for SwipeShare, a new program that allows students on a meal plan to donate their swipes to other students struggling with food insecurity. In its first week alone, the program generated 673 donated meals. They are also developing cooking and nutrition classes, using ingredients readily available at TechMart.

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