Q&A with Swipe Out Hunger CEO Rachel Sumekh

Health & Wellness |  10.9.2019

Food insecurity is a complex issue that impacts millions of Americans, including college students. Though college is a time of personal growth and development, food-insecure students may lack enough food for an active, healthy life. When students are without reliable access to nutritional food, it can decrease the alertness they need to focus on their studies. While there is no singular solution and each campus community has unique needs, bringing together students and partners in constructive dialogue is critical.

We’re proud to work with Swipe Out Hunger, a national nonprofit committed to ending campus hunger to help college students reach their potential. Swipe Out Hunger mobilizes students to donate their extra meal swipes to their food-insecure peers for use at campus dining facilities.

We spoke with Rachel Sumekh, CEO and founder of Swipe Out Hunger, to answer our questions about destigmatizing food insecurity, scaling meal swipe donation programs to help food-insecure students, and making a positive difference in students’ lives.

Q: What is the state of food insecurity in the U.S. and on college campuses?

The most prominent and expansive research study found that one in three students are facing food insecurity nationally, as reported by the Temple University Hope Center. But food insecurity on college campuses is not a new trend; it’s been happening for decades. However, there’s a narrative masking the issue: that college students are supposed to survive on ramen noodles, or it’s normal to be couch surfing. Students may also feel a stigma around food insecurity that can prevent them from speaking about the resources they need.

Q: What is Swipe Out Hunger’s mission?

Our mission is to partner with universities to end student hunger, and the core belief of our organization is that the resources we need to do this already exist in our campus and in our community. When first launched, the program model allowed students to donate the extra money from their meal plan to other students on campus who are food insecure. Over the years, we've grown into providing support to campuses beyond just meal swipe programs, which now includes resources like SNAP enrollment, advocacy campaigns, increasing public funding to campus basic needs and best practices for building a campus where all students, including low-income students, feel they are nourished for success.

Q: How did Swipe Out Hunger originate?

Swipe Out Hunger began when a group of friends and I were in college and had money left on our meal plans at the end of the quarter. My friend Bryan posted on Facebook with a call to action for us all to do something good with our swipes and I messaged him to get involved. In the first iteration, we purchased food to-go with our meal swipes and asked other friends to do the same. We then distributed the food to people who were hungry. Eventually, we got our campus administrators on board with an initial program where the process became systematized. They said: “We’ll let you donate your meal swipes and transfer them electronically onto the accounts of other students.”

Once we got the program off the ground at our own school, we had campuses from across the country reach out to us and say, "How do I get this program on my campus?” The tipping point for us was in 2012 – my senior year – when President Obama invited us to the White House and called us “campus champions of change”. That made me realize that what we were doing was bigger than a campaign at just one campus. 

At the end of 2013, I jumped in as our first full-time person on staff and just celebrated my sixth year with Swipe Out Hunger. In that time, we've been able to reach 32 different states and 85 different campuses, who've all adopted this program to fit their students’ needs.

"The tipping point for us was in 2012 – my senior year – when President Obama invited us to the White House and called us ‘campus champions of change.’ That made me realize what we were doing was bigger than a campaign at just one campus."
- Rachel Sumekh, CEO and founder of Swipe Out Hunger

Q: How do you develop successful programs on campus?

To have success, we need all stakeholders at the table committed to the conversation. First and foremost, it’s students who help design a solution based on their perspective of the issue. Then we need the Dean of Students’ office, whose job it is to ensure students are thriving. We also need partners like Aramark, the food providers on campus who are experts on food. And we need the social workers and counselors who are interfacing with students who are food insecure. Having the right campus stakeholders, including students, campus administrators, financial aid officers, the food service provider and non-profit or community organizations at the table helps create a program that is sustainable.

 

A post shared by ASU - Sun Devil Dining (@sun_devil_dining) on

Students at the University of Delaware organize a drive to collect food swipes for fellow students.

Q: What impact has Swipe Out Hunger had on participants?

72% of students can eat more regularly after receiving swipes. When we ask students how getting meal swipes helped them academically, they say, "I’m able to focus in class. It’s helped me tremendously." Students report being able to go to class without their stomachs rumbling and not having to resort to eating oatmeal for dinner every night. This program not only helps students eat healthy foods that are filling and nutritious; it also improves academic performance because of increased alertness and mental agility.

Another way that students have always said the program influenced their lives — more than any other way — is socially. Students say, "This gave me the chance to actually go in the dining hall and sit down with my friends, instead of going to my apartment and heating up a microwavable meal, which I eat on my bed alone.” Food insecurity is not just having an impact on an individual's health and wellbeing; it's having an impact on their social experience in a time that's so formative in their lives.

Our access to food is reflected in our experience of life and our ability to be positive. I grew up in a food-insecure household, and I didn't know that for years. Even though I work in hunger, it took my mom years to tell me that. There can be a stigma around food insecurity. Individuals experiencing this issue feel their lack of access to food reflects badly on them. One of the things that we're seeking to do is change that narrative, to have students who are food-insecure feel comfortable saying, "I need this resource and so do my peers."

"I get more sleep and pay more attention in class because I'm not hungry. I can exercise in the morning because I won't feel nauseous from skipping dinner the night prior."
- College Sophomore 

Q: How do students contribute to Swipe Out Hunger’s success?

Most of our strategy is informed by student leaders, including those who are facing food insecurity themselves. It’s more powerful when students approach their university than when outside groups do because the students are the universities’ key customers. Our best ideas come from students.

On campus, students are the leaders. They set up tabling events on campuses throughout the year where students can donate extra meal swipes. Having your friends with posters and streamers and stickers at a table outside the dining hall saying, "Hey, come donate your swipes and learn about food insecurity," automatically destigmatizes it. Donating and requesting is all happening in this really positive environment with your peers.

Q: What does success look like?

For me, every student on campus who might be working to get a degree to change their life, or to change their family's life, should not feel like the odds are stacked against them when they walk on campus. I want them to know that there are ways for them to thrive while in university worrying about where their next meal will come from.

Aramark is committed to improving the lives of the people we serve and the communities in which we live and work. Learn more about our partnership with Swipe Out Hunger.