Giving basic needs a needed solution

The Redwood Free Market is located at the Rachel Carson College Cafe, formerly the College Eight Cafe.

In 2017, UCSC opened the Slug Support Food Pantry, now known as the Redwood Free Market, in response to rising rates of food insecurity among college students. Though initially funded by the Global Food Initiative, the Redwood Free Market now relies on donations to keep its shelves stocked. 

Over the past few years, the program has changed its location and name as it grew, adopting the title “Redwood Free Market” to dispel stigma surrounding food pantries. The name isn’t the only way in which the free market differs from its original food pantry labelthe market ensures that students who pass through are given both a choice in their meals and access to nutrition. 

“You obviously can't study if you're hungry, or if you’re wondering where your next meal is coming from,” said UCSC Basic Needs Coordinator Estefanía Rodriguez. “Something as basic as access to food, for some people, is not basic. The Redwood Free Market helps keep students here, so that they can finish their degrees and move on to bigger and better things.”

Since its founding, the Redwood Free Market has experienced consistent annual growth with more students making visits for their daily essentials. With 2729 visits and 1640 unique visitors in the 2017-2018 academic year to a total of 8161 with 2556 unique visitors in the 2021-2022 academic year. Though the increase in visitors may seem to be a further indicator of food insecurity, it also shows the growing awareness and service of the market; the thousands of visitors having their needs fulfilled by the market. 

The Redwood Free Market is run for and by the students, with a system that provides both employment to its workers and resources to the communityworkers themselves often also participate in the free market as customers. The Redwood Free Market puts students at the center of their program in a holistic senseevery choice, from who stocks the shelves to what’s taken off them, is put into clear consideration.

“We really try to use a holistic approach,” Rodriguez said. “[We consider] What types of food? Where does it come from? Is it culturally relevant? Is the space welcoming? Are we taking into consideration the backgrounds of students, and how we can make it as welcoming and friendly as possible? From the second you walk in here to when you leave, what do you take home with you?”

The staff’s dedication to their mission is unparalleledeven in the face of extreme circumstances. In the years following its opening, the Redwood Free Market would adapt to both regional and global disasters: be it a global pandemic or a major wildfire, the Redwood Free Market persevered to serve the community in its most vulnerable moments. Rodriguez said the kitchen made sure to always be there for the students no matter the challenges.

“We were open during the entire pandemic, with a skeleton crew. We were also open during the CZU fire complex, where we evacuated from the campus with enough stuff in a box truck.”

Rodriguez recalled a story of a student who stopped by the market when they were comparatively understockeda moment that demonstrated the necessity of the market beyond just the hard data associated with food insecurity. 

“We had almost nothing on the shelf, but we had a student come in who said ‘oh my god, you guys have so much stuff! I literally have no food in my fridge or my cabinets. I haven't eaten anything. In a few days.’ And we were saying, ‘we're sorry, we don't have as much as we normally do on the shelves or produce wise.’ And they were like, ‘no, this is great.’ It was really humbling just seeing what a valuable resource we are.”

The impact of the market’s student-centered mission can be seen through Joy Swanberg, (College Nine, 23’) a worker at the Redwood Free Market, who discovered the market through the Renaissance Scholars Program in the spring of 2020. 

As a sociology major, Swanberg aimed to work on a project that had both a social benefit to the UCSC community and a heavy student involvement, and the Redwood Free Market fulfilled both criteria. Swanberg recalled conversations with users of the Redwood Free Market, often calling upon her own experience to give advice on dealing with food insecurity through programs like CalFresh.

Swanberg said that she sees the impact of the market throughout her work, and hopes that its reach can extend far beyond its current size. 

“Our funding is based on donations, so the more students that come in, the more funding we get to continue to help the students, expand our services, and expand our reach as well,” Swanberg said. “That's my hope for the future, being able to serve as many students as possible and impact them in a positive way.”

As food insecurity continues to face college students across the nation and within the community, the need for the Redwood Free Market continues to grow. In the face of this challenge, Swanberg gives a warm welcome for all to come to the Redwood Free Market, no matter their status.

“Anyone is welcome at the pantry: students, staff, faculty, anyone is allowed to come in. Anyone who can use groceries, you can utilize the produce. We don't have a limit to how much you can pick upIf anything, we're happy to give away the food so that we're not contributing to waste on this campus. It's a judgment free zone. If you will use it, we'll give it to you, and we'll do it with a smile on our face.”

The Redwood Free Market is located at the Rachel Carson College Cafe, formerly the College Eight Cafe. Information on operation hours can be found here. Make a donation to The Redwood Free Market here.