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interviews

Swipe Out Hunger

by Rachel Sumekh
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© Frank

interviews

Swipe Out Hunger

by Rachel Sumekh
May 16, 2019

This interview with Rachel Sumekh, the founder and CEO of Swipe Out Hunger, was conducted and condensed by frank news. 

frank: How did you find yourself doing this work?

Rachel: I'm 27 years old. I live in Los Angeles, which is also where I'm born and raised. I'm a first generation student, both my parents are Iranian immigrants. I was always a student leader. I was student body president in high school – but suddenly in college it became cool to care about leadership as opposed to it being a nerdy thing. I had a friend [Bryan] who posted on Facebook inviting other students to come take action and end hunger with our meal swipes and I messaged him saying, "Hey, I have a background in Photoshop, I will help make the flyers so that students can come donate their meal swipes." He's like, "Cool, come on this day, we're going to move a bunch of food."

We had students donate swipes. After the swipes drive, we had all this food, but barely anyone showed up – except for me and Bryan. The pivotal moment of what really got me into this work was watching him. Instead of saying, "Wow, we have thousands of pounds of food to move, and only two of us on this hot June day in L.A., let's reschedule," he's like, "Cool, we told the school we were going to do it, and now let's do it."

We spent the next five hours moving food across UCLA's campus to the food closet. In my mind what it meant to be a leader changed, and the power of one person to take a stand that seemed really unreasonable, not easy, and unknown, was very inspiring. I decided from that point on I wanted to provide that opportunity for people. I still feel that moment.

Today, Swipe Out Hunger is a national nonprofit that operates on 75 universities and colleges; each of those campuses are committed to ending college student hunger, and that work is led by college students. They reach out to us, say they want the program, then we train them on how to write proposals, how to negotiate with the university, how to organize their campus, how to market the resource – and then they go and make it happen. A bad policy is waiting for a student to say it needs to be changed, a student to know how to organize, and a student to know how to clearly demand what they need. We want to build a movement that makes it easier, with each added campus, to make a basic statement – no one should be able to make money off of food on campus until everyone has access to food.

How does the program work logistically?

The program itself is built on the assumption that the resources you need to address hunger already exist on our campuses and in our community.

The core program, is in the meal swipe drive; essentially, a program that allows students at the end of each semester to stop by a table, say they have extra meal swipes on their meal plan, and donate. Freshmen, and often sophomores, who live on campus, are required to buy a meal plan. They get 10, 20, or 25 meals a week. If you don't use all those meals they don't roll over. Typically at the end of the semester they're completely unredeemable unless you want to buy a water bottle in exchange for a whole meal.

We provide students with an alternative. Stop by one of our tables, say you want to donate your meal swipes. It takes about 30 seconds. The university then takes the funds from students' accounts and puts them into a communal fund. There's a partnership set up between dining services and the social services office on campus; with the person who interfaces with students that are food insecure, and electronically moves the credit from the general swipe fund into the account of a student who's food insecure. That student, just like everyone else, can swipe into the dining hall and have access to more nourishing dining hall meals. That's the core of our program.

It involves a lot of stakeholder buy in. To get started you need to have a meeting; the first meeting should have the dining director, students, dean of student life, and a basic needs coordinator, or the person who manages a food pantry, and whoever would be in touch with students who are food insecure. We train those core people and you're able to establish a swipe program.

In addition to that, we've written and passed millions of dollars in legislation that has funded anti-hunger programs on campus. We push for Swipe Out Hunger programs, we push for legislation that gives more money to schools, and the way we support campuses in spending those dollars is twofold. One is SNAP programs; getting more students enrolled in SNAP and getting more campuses to accept SNAP. Then secondly, strengthening food closets; food cloests are a reactive solution, but they're also an incredible resource for an everyday student to grab what they need, take it home, and have access to food. How do we make sure food closets have really good hours, are centrally located, have good produce, and that student volunteers who are running the closets can get a stipend or something?

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How do food closets work?

There’s a big range. On some campuses, like UCLA for instance, access is not regulated. Anyone can walk in, get food, and walk out, there's no check in. There are other campuses like UC San Diego, UC Davis, where it's a point system; you're allowed to get three or five points worth of things. You're able to come to a certain amount and pick up what you need. There's a huge diversity, some are very well stocked and very well resourced, and funding for them comes in a variety of ways. It's, as you can imagine, a very easy thing to fundraise for if the university decides to fundraise for it.

A lot of campuses don't want to be known for having homeless students and hungry students.The reason we have such stunning and robust dining halls is because when a parent is on a campus tour and they're helping their child decide where to go to school, if a school has a beautiful dining hall, that's what a parent who's paying full freight, full tuition is going to want their student to experience. A full tuition paying student wants to live the life of college in the movies. So that's what they prioritize.

Because schools are so financially strapped, because our legislators have defunded higher education, schools have to attract full paying, out of state students to bring in more money.

There's a tension between that and schools also saying, "Yeah, also we have a bunch of hungry and homeless students." We hear many campuses who won't even fundraise for basic needs, even though it's an amazing way to mobilize their alumni. Traditionally, pantries are funded through parent circles, community events, and student fees. Many campuses receive student fees to fund their pantries.

What percentage of students on university campuses, on average – I know there will be a wide range depending on school – are experiencing hunger?

The most recent national report shows that one in three students are food insecure.

What sort of legislation are you focused on?

The legislation we advocate for is comprehensive. I was telling this story yesterday to another reporter, they asked me to tell them what we think the solution is. I was called by a legislator recently, she said, "I want to take Swipe Out Hunger onto every college campus in California. What's the bill I should write?" Our response was actually, "Swipe Out Hunger's great, but it's not the solution. I can help write what an effective bill would look like."

I've never written policy before, but I sent back a few ideas including one that would establish a funding pool to any campus that has three things. One is if they have a pantry or some sort of pop-up pantry; two, they should have at least one person trained in how to enroll students in SNAP; and three, if the campus has a meal plan they should give students a chance to donate their meal swipes, and then assign a campus point person to work with students to manage the pragrams. Legislation that we believe is effective has all three of those things built on existing resources in the community. There are food banks who know how to food bank really well – partner with the food banks. The staff already exists, all you have to do is train them in SNAP and that'll happen.

We believe the solutions are in our communities, and we want to amplify them.

I don't want to be the next Feeding America, our entire model is not built on building a new building, it's built on integrating this into existing campus culture, resources, and infrastructure. When we think about policy, we want more funding to the existing system. We want more funding to schools so they don't have to have food be a revenue source, so they don’t have to prioritize full freight students over Pell students and vice versa.

Have universities been open or reluctant to working with Swipe Out Hunger?

The perspective that we, as Swipe Out Hunger, have on this issue is potentially the longest standing perspective. When we began this conversation in 2009 the response we were getting from the university was, "This is not a problem. Maybe there's a couple students who are going hungry, but this is not a problem." Then they started to say, "Okay fine, maybe it's a problem but it's not our problem." By 2014, we had gotten five campuses to launch. 

In 2016 as an organization, we decided not to talk to a single campus who didn't also want to work on campus hunger. 

Historically it was always students writing us, saying "I want to start this program." In 2017, half of our interest came from people on campus, administrators saying they want this program. 

Suddenly, as an organization, our value was no longer exposing people to this issue, our value became responses, best practices, and case studies.

Social pressure came in 2016 – I credit this shift to Sara Goldrick-Rab and The Hope Center's research and leadership. This issue suddenly became a legitimate thing. It was out in the open and schools couldn't deny it anymore. They began looking for a solution. It became an opportunity to be innovative, to be advanced, and so we had schools reaching out.

This resistance goes back to the decision makers. You look at their LinkedIns, it's all Ivy League schools, private high schools. In large part, many have only spent time with people who've never been food insecure – or they wouldn't know it because shame keeps people who have faced food insecurity silent – so no wonder it's so shocking to them. They genuinely don't believe it. I look at the principles Bryan Stevenson speaks about – one of them is proximity.

You have to be close to people to truly understand an issue, the proximity will give you the will power to actually ask for the change that's needed when the moment arises.

The social pressure was huge. 2017 was pivotal.

How do students hear about you?

Almost 60% of the students we serve hear about the resource from a friend, despite it being in the campus newsletters, despite it being in flyers and so on.

All of our programs are run by student leaders. Our special sauce is that we're not just a resource but a resource run by your friends. Who's at the tables collecting swipes? It's other students. Who's helping get the word out, who's in the meetings with administrators deciding the program? It's students. We have universities reach out to us and say they tried to start their own Swipe Out Hunger program, but only had four students apply for free swipes. But it's because no students were involved in designing the program. What would have happened if you had a student tell you that the pick up hours for a meal voucher were off, or that the vouchers were only for the dining hall that's all the way across campus, which is only accessible for students who live on campus?

Having students involved in the design process has been integral to actually developing a program that serves all students.

How do you communicate the importance of this issue to others?

I feel like we immediately dive into the issue without providing context on poverty in general. What I like to remind people is that in America, poverty has become so god damn pervasive it's taking center stage on our college campuses.

This isn't a college problem, this is an American problem, and the fact that we've let it get to this point means that all of our failsafes aren’t working.

That fact that we require students to work 20 hours a week to be eligible for meal swipes, means that our social safety net has failed. The fact that we've defunded higher education means we're not setting up our students to succeed. The fact that families can't be there to support our students – in fact, many students are the ones supporting their families – means that as individuals we are so exhausted by the reality of economics in America, that even our social fabric is failing.

I invested my life in college student hunger because if students are able to get through college and have enough to eat, and feel like their campus was truly built for them, they're going to graduate and they're going to feel like the work force and society was designed for them. They're going to get a job. The lifetime earnings of a person change dramatically depending on degree.

I'm invested in this issue, rather than hunger in general, because if we can help students get degrees, it changes their lives and their families' lives. This is not just ending college student hunger because hunger sucks, this is a systemic way to look at how poverty tends to keep people in poverty. We tell people to pursue education as a way to get out of poverty, but even that advice is failing them because the education system in America is not set up for the diversity of people who are on campus today.