Not too long ago, the notion of food insecurity among NC State students was brought to the attention of Richard “Gus” Gusler, owner of the landmark Players Retreat restaurant near campus, during a conversation with a friend who supports the university.
“I remember being like, ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about,’” Gusler recalled.
Once he heard more about student food insecurity, where students are without reliable access to a sufficient amount of affordable, nutritious food, it hit Gusler – he’d been food insecure himself while a student at NC State decades ago. At the time, the hardship didn’t really have a name.
“There were times when I wasn’t sure how I was going to eat,” he said. “One year, I wasn’t sure I’d be able to go back to school.”
He convinced some friends to rent a cheap off-campus apartment for a year, with the agreement that if he cooked every day for all of them, his friends would buy the food.
“That really helped me get through school,” Gusler said.
Today, Gusler believes food insecurity among college students is still an underpublicized topic.
“People don’t realize that some students don’t have a place to live or have food to eat,” he said.
As he thought more about it after talking with his friend, Gusler said he didn’t have the means to make a large donation to the cause, but he did have a resource to feed those hungry students: the Players Retreat itself.
“At the Players Retreat, since we bought it 14 years ago, we have always done most of our charity work focused on feeding people,” he said.
They’ve supported the Inter-faith Food Shuttle’s Backpack Buddies Program, and any time they’ve held a special event that has made money, the proceeds go toward causes that help feed those in need.
Gusler also remembers back to his own days as a student, when it was sometimes embarrassing if his friends wanted to go out for a meal and he couldn’t afford to join them. By donating Players Retreat gift cards for food-insecure students to use, he knew he could both help feed them and help ensure they wouldn’t feel they couldn’t join their friends for a night out.
“There’s a little stigma to that,” he said. “By giving them gift cards, when the guys say, ‘let’s go get something to eat,’ they’ve got a gift card and can go to the Players Retreat.”
Mike Giancola, assistant vice provost and a student ombudsperson, echoed Gusler’s sentiment about the importance of meeting needs, with dignity.
“Without this support, some students are faced with the choice of not going out with their friends or working on a group project over a meal because they don’t have the funds,” Giancola said.
Each month, Gusler and his team give $500 worth of gift cards to be distributed to students. When they have special events, such as the Old Tuffy beer launch this year, they’ll donate even more.
“We anticipate students will at some point struggle with a class during their time in college, but we don’t want them to worry about where their next meal is coming from,” Giancola said. “Gus’ generosity is a great example of the Wolfpack spirit in action, working together to support students’ success.”
Gusler hopes others might consider joining him in the future by supporting the Pack Essentials initiative, which provides a variety of resources for students struggling with food, housing and financial insecurity.
“I feel like we’re helping out a lot, but the need is far greater than we can do by ourselves,” Gusler said.
The idea that students are trying to earn their degree while they go hungry is disheartening to him.
“My understanding is that most of these students that are food insecure are first-generation college students – I was first-generation as well,” he said. “I would just encourage other people and organizations to step up.”