A new Duke Student Government program provided students on financial aid with additional resources to pay for food during Spring Break. 

With limited food points and a temporarily closed Marketplace, many first-years have to purchase food from off-campus vendors during breaks. But last month, DSG approved a voucher program to alleviate food costs for financial aid students. Junior Kevin Mutchnick, senator for equity and outreach, introduced the budgetary statute, which allocated $1,500 from the DSG surplus fund to purchase $150 Whole Foods gift cards to cover 10 first-years' meals during Spring Break.

“I don't quite know what I would have done without it,” first-year Lauren Hadley said. “This was very important for my needs, as I actually had surgery on my ACL the Thursday before Spring Break. I had someone take me to Whole Foods to buy stuff I needed.”

Hadley noted that before the surgery, she had planned on working extra hours during break to cover her meal expenses. But her injury limited her ability to work, which made her worry about how she was going to pay for food.

“This program saved me a lot of anxiety and helped me focus on healing,” Hadley said.

To choose who would receive the funding, DSG randomly selected 10 students out of those who responded to a listserv email sent by the Office of Financial Aid and the Office of Access and Outreach. Mutchnick noted the high demand for this program, saying he received more than 100 responses in less than three days after advertising the program. 

“It was really hard to tell 90 people that we don’t have the funding to give [them],” Mutchnick said.

The program asked participating students to sign a contract pledging that they would not use the gift cards to purchase alcohol or lottery tickets. However, there is no in-store enforcement mechanism to ensure that students comply.

Mutchnick explained that although the program was a success, a financial aid technicality threatened to derail the initiative, which originally proposed cash awards to students for purchasing food. 

“If you give people cash, then that deducts from the money financial aid can give students.” Mutchnick said. “Through gift cards, it's more of a gift in the eyes of financial aid.” 

Mutchnick quickly revised the proposal to allow funding for the purchase of gift cards.

In addition to this initial hurdle, last-minute confusion with the University Center for Activities and Events the Thursday before break almost prevented funding for the program. After Mutchnick emailed Larry Moneta, vice president for student affairs, the same day, UCAE approved the funding that Friday. 

Mutchnick emphasized that Moneta’s support was crucial in resolving the last-minute confusion at UCAE. When asked how he helped the voucher program, Moneta said he played a small role. 

“I simply asked UCAE staff to explore solutions and they did,” Moneta wrote in an email.

Mutchnick said he hopes the program will expand, eventually including all students on financial aid struggling to get meals during break. Junior Riyanka Ganguly, president-elect and current vice president for equity and outreach, added that she hopes the program will serve as a wake-up call for Duke’s administration. 

“In the future, we hope the Office of Access and Outreach will adopt [the program] and for it to be implemented during all breaks,” Ganguly said.