The University Network

This Nonprofit Is On a Mission To End Student Hunger

A third of college students don’t know when or where they’ll get their next meal. Swipe Out Hunger, an organization founded by a group of friends at UCLA in 2010, is on a mission to change that. 

The nonprofit has already helped give nearly 2 million nutritious meals to hungry students across 90 colleges and universities in 34 states. 

“Our goal is really to end college student hunger,” Rachel Sumekh, Swipe Out Hunger’s founder and CEO, told The University Network. “The way that we do that is by partnering with universities.”

Most often, when Swipe Out Hunger partners with a university, it’s to establish a chapter of its Swipes Drive program, through which students with dining hall plans can donate their extra meal swipes to help feed their low-income peers. 

Any individual student or student-led group can bring Swipe Out Hunger’s program to their respective campuses. But sometimes, it requires perseverance.  

Sumekh tells the story of a group of students at the University of Kentucky who were pushing to get a Swipe Out Hunger program started. Their campus administrators kept refusing, but they persisted. 

“(The students) came to us and said, ‘we’ve been really nice, we’ve been playing by the rules, we’ve been advocating for months, and we’re not going to take no for an answer. We’re going to go on a hunger strike until they say they’ll approve the program,’ ” said Sumekh. 

Sumekh says, at first, she was a bit hesitant about this idea. She typically advises students against going on a hunger strike, as she worries it’s too extreme, may result in the university getting bad press and, ultimately, not bring a Swipe Out Hunger program to campus.

“But these students, because they are on the ground and see their friends going hungry, they didn’t take that for an answer,” Sumekh said. “They went on a hunger strike, and within five days they had all of their demands met. Not only did they get a full Swipe Out Hunger program, they also got a full-time staff person to be a basic needs coordinator, and even got a space for students to go to get access to resources.” 

Student hunger at the University of Kentucky may now be on its way to being solved. But, nationally, there’s still a long way to go. 

According to a recent study conducted by College Pulse, 12 percent of college students will go at least a day without eating, simply because they can’t afford to.

And in April, Temple University’s Hope Center surveyed almost 86,000 students to find that nearly half of them had experienced food insecurity within the 30 days leading up to the survey. 

So, Swipe Out Hunger also seeks to address the problem, on a larger scale, by working with lawmakers and companies. The nonprofit authored the Hunger Free Campus Act, which requires colleges and universities to establish food pantries and meal-share programs and to hire full-time staff to help guarantee hungry students have their needs met, among other things. 

The bill has already passed in California, New Jersey and Minnesota, and sent $20 million to campuses to address student hunger, Sumekh explains. 

“Basically, it’s the first time that states are recognizing student hunger as an issue, and also putting money behind it to make sure campuses have money to do this work,” said Sumekh. 

And just last month, Swipe Out Hunger announced three new corporate partnerships with Sodexo, Aramark and CBORD, through which they expect to be able to increase the number of meals they provide to college students by 39 percent in the first year. 

By way of the partnership, Sodexo — a food services company and the 18th largest employer in the world — is launching a pilot program establishing “Meal Swipe Banks” at 13 universities. Sodexo will provide two free meals for every full-time meal plan sold. The company estimates it will result in 25,000 additional free meals each year. 

Aramark — the second largest food service provider in the United States — partnered with Swipe Out Hunger to fund the nonprofit’s Research and Development Lab, which will house research projects crucial to developing innovative solutions to campus hunger. 

And CBORD — the tech company that operates student ID card services on hundreds of college campuses — is working with Swipe Out Hunger to eliminate the logistical challenges of transferring students’ meal swipes. The company is integrating a functionality into its GET CBORD Student app through which students can donate their extra meal swipes. Once meals are donated, they will be pooled and distributed through campus card systems.

“We heard all too many stories of students who were swallowed by the shame of their rumbling stomachs, nevertheless pushing through and showing up for class,” Sumekh wrote in a blog post announcing the partnerships. “With one in three students facing hunger, we knew a solution would take time and investment from across sectors.”

It’s true that campus hunger is still far from being solved. However, for what originated as a grassroots, student-led movement, Swipe Out Hunger has achieved a lot. In less than 10 years, the nonprofit has done what could’ve seemingly taken a lifetime. Because of Swipe Out Hunger, millions of meals have been served to hungry students across the nation and food insecurity on campus is beginning to receive the mainstream attention it deserves. 

“Because we started as a student movement … we had to build a movement that was people-powered,” said Sumekh. “We aren’t a cookie-cutter program. Because students launch it, there is a sense of ownership. There’s a sense of ‘this is something I’m proud of. This is something run by me.’ It’s easier to galvanize other students around that.” 

“I also think that the issue was being spoken about by policy people, by academics and by people who didn’t actually know how to do something about it,” she continued. “And Swipe Out Hunger was actually giving people a pathway to not just start a program or support a program but also understand what a solution could look like, and I think that was really attractive to people as well. People want to know what action looks like, not just data.”

Despite its rapid growth, Swipe Out Hunger is far from the finish line. And its members won’t rest until student hunger is a thing of the past. 

“We see basic needs support as that next thing that every campus has,” said Sumekh. “And we see us at Swipe Out Hunger really leading the way on not just pressuring schools to do that but also providing them support to get there.”

To learn more about how you can join the movement, check Swipe Out Hunger’s website for details.