During her second year at UCLA, Rachel Sumekh and a group of friends began to give meals from their meal plans to needy people on the street. For various reasons, including liability concerns, the school wasn’t happy with this. But Sumekh knew she was on to something, namely that her unused meals could help the hungry. Seven years later, Sumekh’s organization, Swipe Out Hunger, works with 22 schools across the country to give meals to those in need.
Getting UCLA on board with an official program to donate meal plan meals wasn’t easy, Sumekh admits, and in some ways she has the same conversation with each new school she works with at Swipe Out Hunger.
“Every university says this is logistically not possible for us,” says Sumekh, the founder and executive director of Swipe Out Hunger. “Our next question is, ‘What logistically makes it not possible?’ They say finances, or our points roll over at the end of each week or that we just don’t have this in our capacity. So then it becomes a question of well, ‘how much can you give? Do you at least have $5,000 left over every year? Can we have students do all the information collection? What is the actual logistic that’s stopping you?’”
The way Swipe Out Hunger works with each school is a little different to account for their existing program. “Each school really prides itself on the dining program,” says Sumekh. “We think it’s more sustainable if they design something for themselves.”
At UCLA, for example, students donate between 8,000 and 16,000 meal swipes a quarter. The school converts these into meal vouchers for students in need. Most students in need can receive one meal voucher a week.
“UCLA’s philosophy is that we don’t want students to rely on this,” Sumekh says. “We just want it to be like something that picks them up when we need to and we support them to find work outside of that. Students who are undocumented and can’t find work receive about 30 meal vouchers every quarter because it’s much harder for them to find work, if at all.”
The basic model gives students the opportunity to donate unused meals or points from their meal program. Students often donate through Swipe Out Hunger chapter members who have tables outside of cafeterias encouraging students to share their meals. Some schools have created apps to facilitate donations. Sumekh offers support and training, but the students at each university organize and run much of the day-to-day operations.
In the past, university students have approached Sumekh to start a new program in their school, but as Swipe Out Hunger has gotten more recognition, universities have been reaching out to Sumekh directly. This interest from universities coincides with Swipe Out Hunger’s pivot to focus on student hunger.
The people who are going to college are different than they were a decade or so ago and have different needs, Sumekh says. “That same student who had free or reduced lunches since pre-K doesn’t have access to free lunches anymore.”
Sumekh believes her organization can have the most impact by focusing on student hunger. Many of the schools Swipe Out Hunger works with have embraced this concept, including the University of California at Santa Barbara (USCB). Its program initially donated sack lunches to a nearby shelter but now gives to students in need.
UCSB students donate meals, up to 1000 a quarter, through Swipe out Hunger. UCSB dining services calculates those meals and turns them into meal vouchers available at the school’s food bank, one of a handful of programs at UCSB helping student in need.
“People are starting to talk about [student hunger] more and actually acknowledge it,” says Jill Horst, the director of residential dining at UCSB who works directly with the Swipe Out Hunger student members.
Sumekh hopes that Swipe Out Hunger can lessen the stigma of student hunger.
There’s still a ways to go to changing the mindset around student hunger, though, so Horst notes that the vouchers given to students in need through the food bank look just like any other meal voucher. “We don’t want them to feel or look any different than anyone else walking through the door,” she says.
Three years in, the UCSB program runs smoothly now, but Horst admits there were some bumps along the way. “Students who are great and very passionate want things to happen immediately, but there has to be processes put in place,” Horst says. “In a big organization like residential dining, it takes a little while to understand how we’re going to make this work long term, not only financially but what the process is.”
It’s also important to tackle student hunger holistically, Horst adds. “We need to be looking at this globally. It’s a problem on a lot of campuses, and it’s a campus problem, it’s not just a residential dining problem to give the solution. The campus as a whole needs to embrace this.