Swiping Out Food Insecurity on College Campuses

By Molly Sulzer

Earlier this summer, I returned to my high school in Los Angeles to see a friend of mine graduate. As the Head of School walked across the stage to begin her remarks, I imagined her speech would be filled with a few simple pieces of advice, words of encouragement, and a lighthearted joke or two to keep the grandparents in the audience awake. Instead, she spoke to the graduating class about a much more serious topic: economic inequality, in particular the food insecurity epidemic ravaging college campuses across the nation. She mentioned that while most of the graduates of my private high school had enjoyed the privilege of never having to wonder where their next meal would come from, there were students just five miles away at the University of Southern California, the school I now attend, who are struggling silently with food insecurity. 

The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines food insecurity as a lack of consistent access to enough food for an active, healthy life. According to a 2017 study, roughly half of 4-year and 2-year college students struggle with varying degrees of food insecurity. This study did not include respondents from schools in the University of California system, but UC Berkeley conducted its own study, finding that 42% of UC students are food insecure. According to the National Student Campaign Against Hunger & Homelessness, the statistics for students of color are even more devastating. 

Students throughout the country have reported skipping meals, eating smaller meals, or even simply going to bed early to avoid their hunger. With annually rising tuition prices, the exorbitant costs of textbooks, and fear of looming student loan debt, it’s no wonder college students are finding it increasingly difficult to pay for anything, even the most basic necessities.

College meal plans at some schools are also extremely insufficient. My sister, who attends college in Claremont, California, has mentioned that because her meal plan only allows for a particular number of meal swipes per year, it’s not uncommon for students to be forced to miss meals as the end of the semester approaches and their personal bank account balances dwindle. Food insecurity also affects students who are not directly enrolled in their school’s meal plans. For one, meal plans are expensive. During my sophomore year, my friends and I gawked at the $3,720/semester meal plan fee and started buying our own groceries. Still others do not sign up for school meal plans because they commute to campus or have their own families to feed.

For students buying their own food, access to cost-effective, healthy products in grocery stores is, and always has been, a problem—especially near college campuses in low-income communities. Luca Giovannetti, the Coordinator for the Community Food Alliance Program of Rutgers University, a program addressing food insecurity in New Brunswick, New Jersey, explains that “one of the reasons why low-income areas are food deserts is because supermarkets don’t think they can make enough money there, so they won’t go there. And then the supermarkets that do come in don’t offer as much variety, don’t offer as much fresh produce.”

Instead of letting the student hunger epidemic fester, student activists are fighting back against administrative inaction. While a student at UCLA, Rachel Sumekh and her close group of friends founded Swipe Out Hunger, now a national nonprofit that allows college students to donate their extra meal swipes to students who have run out of their own. Today, Swipe Out Hunger has grown from its founding UCLA chapter to over 80 colleges and universities. She also aided in the drafting and passage of landmark legislation that increases funding for UC campuses designating themselves as “hunger free,” thus encouraging schools to establish food pantries and hire staff to help students enroll in CalFresh, California’s federal food assistance program.

Other students have also taken action on their campuses, like An Garagiola-Bernier of Hamline University, who started the Feed Your Brain campaign to mobilize students to work with student government associations to establish food pantries on their campuses. Student governments have also been active in securing funding for large-scale action on food insecurity. In June, the Associated Students of the University of California, Irvine secured $400,000 to supply the campus food pantry and establish a fund for emergency meal swipes. The money will also go towards hiring a clinical case worker and student staff to manage the food pantry. 

Due in large part to student activism, colleges and universities are beginning to address food insecurity on a larger scale. Michigan State University, one of the leading institutions on this issue, was the first university to create a food pantry on campus. At Michigan State’s health center, staff also screen students for signs of food insecurity. I’m proud to witness my own university working to combat food insecurity as well: USC has opened three food pantries where students can pick up groceries and ask for assistance with signing up for CalFresh. Food insecure students at USC are also eligible for a $25 Trader Joe’s gift card and can visit USC’s virtual food pantry. 

While efforts by college administrators and students to tackle student hunger have been successful on individual campuses, more can be done. The meal swipe program and food pantries are commendable initiatives as they provide emergency resources to students who are hungry, but they fail to address the underlying causes of student hunger. Students have also commented that food pantries are not always sufficiently stocked and often stock cheap, unhealthy foods instead of more nutritious produce. If schools are interested in fully fighting food insecurity, they should consider investing in robust research on factors contributing to hunger, including the correlation between housing disparities and food insecurity. Food insecurity is a challenge that many students struggle with silently, so it is important that those conducting research on this issue approach it with sensitivity and understanding that each student’s situation and needs are unique. In addition, administrations and students should consider working with lawmakers to draft legislation on the state and national level that provides greater support for and protects the rights of food insecure students. 

No student should have to worry about where their next meal will come from or have to choose between buying a meal plan or buying a textbook. The fight to end food insecurity is far from over, and the time to act is now.

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