When it comes to food insecurity, college and university students are an exceptionally vulnerable population. A recent study by the Wisconsin Hope Lab, a research nonprofit focused on higher education issues, found that 36 percent of four-year college students nationwide and 42 percent of two-year college students experienced food insecurity in the 30 days preceding the study. The latter number is actually a reduction from the 56 percent of community college students who reported experiencing food insecurity in 2016.
Food insecurity causes a host of problems for students in college. A 2016 study found that 32 percent of students who reported being food insecure believed it had a negative effect on their education. Of those students, 55 percent said they’d chosen not to buy a required textbook in order to eat. More than half reported missing a class due to food insecurity, and 25 percent of students reported dropping a class altogether.
Why are so many students facing food insecurity? For one thing, according to CollegeBoard, tuition rose 213 percent for four-year public institutions and 127 percent for four-year private institutions between 1987 and 2017. For another, colleges and universities have seen an increase in enrollment of low-income students, who may lack either the funds or family support to purchase a meal plan. We know that completing a college degree is more likely to lead to financial success and upward mobility over the course of a lifetime, but students shouldn’t have to go hungry to achieve the American dream.
Enter Swipe Out Hunger, a nonprofit founded by students at the University of California, Los Angeles in 2010 that partners with colleges and universities to convert unused meal plan meals into nutritional resources for students facing food insecurity on campus. Since then, Swipe Out Hunger has grown to include 67 campus partners nationwide and has provided 1.6 million meals and counting to students in need, donated by more than 20,000 college student peers.
The systemic issues that lead to food insecurity in students may seem like an insurmountable problem, but they aren’t. “Hunger isn’t a lack of food problem; it’s a lack of creativity problem,” said Rachel Sumekh, founder and CEO of Swipe Out Hunger and one of the authors of California Assembly Bill 453 that provided $7.5 million annually to help combat student hunger by launching hunger-fighting programs on campuses. Today, the group helps feed students in need by partnering with on-campus advocates—students, administrators, and facility staff—to recycle unused meal passes.
Swipe Out Hunger chapters offer students the opportunity to donate unused meal swipes, either through a designated “swipes drive” or on an ongoing basis throughout the year. Those donations are converted into either a dollar amount or pounds of food, which are collected by dining services staff and converted into meal credits. Those meal credits are loaded onto meal cards that are distributed to students in need for use the next semester.
The number of students helped varies by institution. Campuses with more donation swipes than requests for help can often issue cards to any student who requests assistance. At colleges with a larger need or fewer donations, in-need students are given priority based on their FASA filing (which notes household income levels), as well as first-generation and undocumented students in need.
People often misunderstand the challenges of students facing food insecurity, rather than hunger. Sumekh says it’s not as simple as telling food insecure students to “just eat ramen.” Though the two problems are connected, it’s crucial to understand the difference between hunger—sitting in the middle of a meeting and feeling your stomach rumble—and food insecurity, which refers to waking up in the morning not knowing what you can afford to eat that day. Food insecurity includes hunger, anxiety and stress.
That’s where charities like Swipe Out Hunger come in, to address the larger need and help end the crippling cycle of food insecurity and anxiety.
Building community through meals
The meals have benefits beyond providing basic sustenance, too. Swipe Out Hunger found that students who used the program reported benefits in three key areas: a boost in academics, health, and feelings of inclusion and belonging on campus. That’s particularly important because studies show students who feel a higher level of inclusion and connection to their college or university are more likely to stay enrolled and complete their degree.
“If you walk into dining halls with people, your social community is so much stronger than eating alone or feeling this isn’t for you,” Sumekh said. That social community in turn has mental and emotional health benefits for students, and those benefits are the reason Sumekh chose to focus on student hunger, above other issues facing college students. “The impact of a meal [in a dining hall] is magnified times 10. It’s not just the meal—it’s giving students confidence and community,” she said.
The need for systemic change versus charity
People’s instinct is to help via charity, to donate meals or to volunteer at food banks. Those efforts are useful, but sending students to a food bank isn’t a sustainable solution, Sumekh said. We need to be looking at the systemic issue to make real progress, ensuring students have ongoing access to meals and can devote their energy and time to their education rather than trying to figure out where their next meal is coming from. “Unless we can feed these college students, they’re not going to graduate,” she said.
Sumekh notes that Feeding America gives out meals for more than 46 million people per year, but that’s still not the most efficient way to solve food insecurity. A government resource doing a better job of providing consistent meals is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, which offers qualified users a prepaid debit card to buy groceries. “For every meal that Feeding America gives out, SNAP gives out 12,” she said. In fiscal year 2011, SNAP reported that it provided $134 per person to 44.7 million individuals in 21.1 million households each month.
Recognize the limitations
But Swipe Out Hunger and SNAP aren’t foolproof. Students need to know about resources to use them. As of September 2018, more than 650 colleges offered a free food pantry, but many students didn’t know about support measures such as these, as identified by the Government Accountability Office report on student hunger published in December 2018.
Even SNAP is not always a workable answer for those who face food insecurity: In 2016, nearly 2 million students who were eligible for SNAP did not receive it. Those eligible can face access barriers, depending upon the state in which they live, including an arduous application process that involves multiple interviews. And SNAP and other governmental programs like it—for example, CalFresh in California—lack the numbers of volunteers needed to properly sign up and enroll those in need.
But in the nine years since its inception, Swipe Out Hunger has made huge strides in raising awareness of student food insecurity, as well as help provide a safety net so students can thrive in higher education. In 2018, the organization published their first impact report, which included information from 800 students at both public and private universities who received meal passes through campus chapters of Swipe Out Hunger. The report found that 64 percent of respondents agreed that receiving meal swipes helped them stay in school and 52 percent of respondents agreed that meal swipes helped their grades. With locations in 25 states, Swipe Out Hunger still has room left to grow and plenty more change to bring to the world.