She's on a mission to make America's colleges 'hunger free'
Posted June 12, 2017 11:30 a.m. EDT
In 2009, UCLA freshman Rachel Sumekh was angry.
Los Angeles' homeless and even some students on her own campus were going hungry. Meanwhile, students like Sumekh were paying hundreds, if not thousands of dollars each year for their campus meal plans, and unused meals would go to waste at the end of the semester.
"We were mad at the man," she recalls.
At the end of the fall semester, Sumekh and some friends encouraged others to use up their remaining meals by ordering sandwiches to-go. They had a mountain of white Styrofoam boxes by the end of one day that they delivered to local homeless shelters. Over the week, 300 students had participated.
The college, however, didn't embrace the unauthorized transfer of dining hall dollars and told them to stop buying extra meals.
"I remember thinking, this is really f***ed" up," Sumekh said.
But the students worked with UCLA's administration to create a sanctioned way to donate their unused meals. The college eventually allowed them to convert the meals into vouchers for students in need or donations to the campus food pantry and local homeless shelters.
The program became the first chapter of what is now Swipe Out Hunger. It currently has chapters on 30 campuses across the country and last year, transferred $327,567 from what would have been unused meals to students and local communities.
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Sumekh, 25, is now the organization's CEO. She spent a year working as a social worker after graduating college in 2012 before taking over full time.
Since then, the organization has added campuses like the University of Pennsylvania and Howard University. Swipes, as it's affectionately called, just sealed the deal with the ninth and final University of California campus.
And it's on the brink of adding dozens more. The California legislature is considering a bill that would encourage the remaining colleges in the state to come on board. It would give extra funding to colleges that create a Swipe Out Hunger program.
Those colleges would receive a "Hunger Free Campus" certification. The State Assembly approved the legislation last month and the Senate is expected to vote by the end of June.
It's not the first time state leaders have addressed the issue. After a 2016 report found that one-in-five students surveyed in the California University system experienced hunger, the school administration increased funding for campuses to expand their food pantries and other support services.
Those students reported that they had at some point skipped meals because they ran out of money during the past 12 months.
Some students whose families are on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) find they no longer qualify once they enroll in college. Students must meet additional criteria and likely have to prove they work 20 hours a week and/or qualify for the federal Work Study Program.
California's proposed Hunger Free Campus certification also requires campuses to designate a staff member responsible for helping students sign up for the state's benefit program.
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Across the country, one-in-seven families are food insecure, according to the Department of Agriculture. The government does not measure college students separately, but a recent nationwide survey of 3,000 students found almost half of college students experienced food insecurity in the past 30 days.
"Food is the first thing they cut back on," Sumekh said.
Whether or not hunger is a new problem or simply more out in the open, campuses have responded with a growing number of food pantries for students. There's no official count, but membership in the College and University Food Bank Alliance has more than quadrupled to 502 over the past two years.
Sumekh has found that colleges often want to help, but are strangled by long-term contracts with food service companies. Reauthorizing dining dollars to the food pantry or meal vouchers can be a fiscal and legal challenge. Swipe Out Hunger usually has to negotiate how much each unused meal is worth.
Critics, and there are plenty, say Swipes and campus pantries are benefiting those looking for an undeserved hand out.
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But a majority of those who said they've experienced food insecurity in the nationwide survey are both working and receiving financial aid, and still don't have enough to make ends meet. About 15% of those hungry said they also experienced some sort of homelessness over the past year.
Sumekh says that Swipe Out Hunger is doing more than giving out free meals.
Nearly a third of food insecure students said it had an impact on their education, causing them to forgo buying a text book, skip or drop a class.
"If what we're doing is helping people stay in school, get a degree and get a great job then this has massive impact," Sumekh said.