Rachel Sumekh – Founder & CEO of Swipe Out Hunger

Can you tell us a little bit about your history and experience working with Swipe Out Hunger and college students who face hunger and other basic needs insecurity?

Swipe Out Hunger was founded in 2010 by a few friends as a college project at UCLA. The organization has grown and is now present on 45 universities and has served over 1.5 million meals. Their innovative approach allows university students to donate unused funds from their meal plans to food insecure peers. Earlier this year, the organization was called upon to author a piece of legislation to address college student hunger. The state of California adopted the legislation and put $7.5 million behind it.

We have 46 university and college partners, highlighted below. We work directly with Deans of Students, Directors of Dining, student leaders, student beneficiaries and the community. We provide both common sense and innovative solutions to campus hunger. Our most commonly adopted program is “The Swipe Drive” where students with extra dining hall meal swipes can donate them to their peers. Other programs include enrolling students in SNAP and financial support to campuses.

Public interest in student hunger is at an all time high. In 2017 alone, half of the interest forms we received came from university staff — historically, its been only students. Swipe Out Hunger has become a platform and leading voice for universities who are taking action.

During your time working with youth who face hunger and basic needs insecurity, how have you seen hunger affect a student’s schooling?

Many of the students we work with have shared how difficult it is to focus on studying and performing well in school when they are stressed out because they have not eaten or don’t know where they will get their next meal. One student who resorted to skipping meals due to financial hardship had to suffer through the distraction of having her stomach grumble during lectures. Another student had to go to sleep early and miss study group to avoid the pangs of hunger that would get worse the longer she stayed awake.

In addition to the anecdotes we have gathered, studies published by the Wisconsin Hope Lab, the leading research team studying college students’ basic needs, have demonstrated the destructive educational impacts of food insecurity for students. “Whether due to nutritional deficits or the stress and distraction of dealing with financial hardship, food insecurity can compromise students’ ability to perform well in their classes. In extreme cases, food insecurity can force students to take time off from school or discontinue their education entirely” (pg 21 of this study).

What don’t people understand about the challenges faced by students in these circumstances?

Many people do not consider the demographics are for college students who face these circumstances. The students facing the greatest hardships are those from low-income backgrounds, those who are undocumented, those who have children, first-generation college students, and former foster youth. These are the same students who received free or reduced-priced breakfasts and lunches from kindergarten through high school, and who hustled to make it into college only to find out that these institutions aren’t designed with students like them in mind.

The second thing people don’t often consider is just how expensive the combined living expenses of college life can be. Students must pay for food, housing, transportation, textbooks, healthcare, and other expenses. Unfortunately, scholarship and financial aid programs designed for low-income students fail to truly cover the bulk of their needs.

What are the common misconceptions or stigmas associated with issues of hunger on campuses? How prevalent is student hunger?

One common misconception is that student hunger will go away if students get a job to bring in income, or take better advantage of financial aid packages. Most of the time, food insecure students are already working and receiving financial aid. Another problematic stereotype that surrounds the issue is the idea that eating ramen and PB&Js is a rite of passage that all college students should experience. Our work directly aims to disrupt this myth and break the culture of stigma that prevents many students from opening up about their struggles and seeking help.

A 2016 national study showed that by USDA standards, 22% of students attending 4-year universities and 33% of community college students reported ranking in the lowest 20% of food security levels. This translates to students consistently being unable to eat 1-3 meals a week. The same study showed that 52% of these students reported not going to class because of their lack of access to basic needs.

5. Are there resources where college students who face hunger can apply to receive food assistance? Are there programs like SNAP?

We have been excited to learn about the increase of SNAP outreach efforts on a number of colleges and universities across the country. Many of these campuses conduct strategic promotion encouraging target populations of students to sign up. Clever messaging campaigns like this Code for America initiative have helped reduce the stigma and encourage students to enroll in SNAP across campuses in California. In addition to creating this campaign, Code for America designed a special portal to make signing up for SNAP easier to navigate for California students. Some schools offer SNAP application assistance by training in-house staff to offer individual appointments or host group clinics. Other schools partner with social work interns or invite professionals from nonprofit or government agencies to come onsite.

What are academic challenges specific to students who face hunger that their peers may not experience?

Studies have found correlations between student hunger and a host of academic challenges, including missing class, missing study sessions, missing club meetings, not buying a required textbook, dropping a class, not performing well academically, changes in GPA, and persistence to the next semester in school.

Are there organizations or resources college students who face basic needs insecurity or hunger can connect with?

The College and University Food Bank Alliance can support colleges with setting up or sustaining pantries on campus. In addition, the Single Stop platform helps connect people to resources they need to attain higher education, good jobs, and financial stability.

What ways can all students work on their campuses to address these stigmas? How can students advocate for their peers who face hunger or other basic needs insecurities?

Advocate for the campus to set up a webpage that describes all of the basic needs support they provide and where students who are struggling can go for support (i.e. Financial Aid Counselors, Dean of Students, Office of Health, etc.). You can also host a targeted campaign in person and on social media to raise awareness about student food insecurity and highlight some actions students can take to help, such as signing a petition to support a new meal sharing program.

What are some strategies students can use to address their basic needs insecurity or hunger with universities, professors, and their peers?

Partner with student government to host an open discussion about what is working well and what is not with regards to food access on campus. Invite key campus admin, faculty, and dining staff to attend the forum to hear students’ concerns, field questions, and brainstorm action items to improve this landscape.

What are specific ways schools can work with students and organizations to lower the rate of students who face hunger or basic needs insecurity while in college?

First and foremost, start a Swipe Out Hunger meal sharing program! Other innovative best practices beyond meal sharing programs can be found here.