Rachel Sumekh is one of five speakers who will participate in FEDtalks Sept. 13. (photo from Rachel Sumekh)
University students with meal plans often end a semester or term with a surplus on their cafeteria swipe card. Whether because they skip a few breakfasts, go on vacation or eat in a restaurant the occasional night, some of the meals they pay for go unpurchased. In most instances, students are not reimbursed for uneaten meals.
When Rachel Sumekh was studying history at the University of California Los Angeles in 2010, she and some friends went to the cafeteria, stocked up on to-go food using the amounts remaining on their swipe cards and handed it out to hungry people on the streets of the city.
The dining provider didn’t like the gesture of goodwill, as it created an unanticipated run on to-go food. Sumekh talked it out with the administrators and created the pilot project for Swipe Out Hunger, an initiative that is now on 32 American college campuses, helping feed hungry people across the country. Sumekh will talk about the project here on Sept.13 at FEDtalks, the opening event of the Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver’s annual campaign.
The original idea, she admits, came from her friend Bryan Pezeshki, but he was busy continuing his studies – he’s now a doctor – and so Sumekh and a few friends carried it on as a side gig, meeting on Sundays and creating Swipe Out Hunger. In 2013, they decided to see what would happen if a full-time staff person were devoted to the project and Sumekh took on the job.
In such a venture, the humanitarian impulses of dining providers compete with their bottom line – unused amounts on meal cards means lower operating costs for them. So, in getting suppliers on board, Swipe Out Hunger organizers emphasize doing the right thing, while also implying there might be bad publicity if campus media discover food providers’ reluctance to participate in a program that fights hunger. Nonetheless, it is a challenge. Sumekh said students from about 300 different campuses have approached Swipe Out Hunger to start their own chapters, yet only about 10% of those have been successfully launched.
“So, it comes down to how difficult it is for universities to actually agree to implement this,” she said.
Originally focused on feeding hungry people in the communities around campus, Swipe Out Hunger has transitioned to focus mostly on addressing the hunger of students on campus.
Ironically, the problem of student hunger is exacerbated by an increasing accessibility of post-secondary education, she said. Financial aid and need-based scholarships are making it easier for young people from lower socioeconomic backgrounds to attend college. But, once there, they confront the realities of student life without money.
Educational institutions are giving financial aid, even full tuition in some cases, Sumekh said, but the students still have no money. “So who’s going to pay for their housing or their meals or their books or their transportation and all the other stuff?” She estimates that 75% of those benefitting from Swipe Out Hunger now are college students.
Sumekh says hunger leads to increased absenteeism, poor grades and dropping out. She pointed to a Canadian study that suggests 39% of Canadian college students cannot afford balanced meals and fear not having enough food at all. Almost half of the more than 4,000 students who participated in the study said they chose books, tuition and rent over healthy meals, one-quarter said the lack of good food affected their physical health and one in five said their mental health was affected. While there are no Swipe Out Hunger chapters in Canada yet, a similar program, Meal Exchange, exists here.
Universities are slowly coming to the awareness that their students’ well-being depends on healthy, sufficient diets, among all the other factors, Sumekh said. This is evidenced by the shift her organization has seen in the type of people who are approaching Swipe Out Hunger.
“Previously, 100% of the interest in our program was from students,” she said. “Now, over 50% of our interest is coming directly from administrators.… Universities are finally recognizing that they have students on their own campus who are going hungry and they have to do something about it.”
There has been a stigma around colleges acknowledging hunger among their students, she added, but this is diminishing in the face of recognition of the need.
Swipe Out Hunger also had a recent advocacy triumph. In June, thanks to pressure from Sumekh’s organization, the California state legislature and Governor Jerry Brown approved $7.5 million in funding to encourage colleges throughout the state to adopt a Swipe Out Hunger program, establish food pantries and hire staff to help students access nutritious food. So far, 1.3 million meals have been shared – and that number is likely to grow, as Swipe Out Hunger catches on in California and nationwide. Despite this success, Sumekh hopes her organization goes out of business.
“If there’s anything we believe, it’s that the old model of charity doesn’t work,” she said. “We don’t want to exist 20 years from now.”
Swipe Out Hunger is aiming for a systemic shift, where universities take it upon themselves to ensure that students’ needs are met, a universalization of an ad hoc program now on some campuses in which meals are provided to students in need.
While Swipe Out Hunger isn’t aimed specifically at Jewish students or any other cultural demographic, Sumekh credits both her Jewishness and assistance from the Jewish community for inspiring the initiative. The daughter of refugees from post-revolution Iran, Sumekh is excited to be sharing the stage at FEDtalks with Eric Fingerhut, chief executive officer of Hillel International, because she was involved with UCLA Hillel and got lots of support from the campus group when she was starting Swipe Out Hunger.
“When I was getting the program off the ground, I would go to Hillel and they would say, Rachel, whatever you need, tell us and we’ll make it happen,” she said. “It was an amazing way to see the Jewish community say, let’s just support this young Jew, even though what they’re doing isn’t just for Israel or just for Jewish people. If they’re doing something that’s living out our values, we should want to support that.”
For the full FEDtalks lineup and tickets, visit jewishvancouver.com/fedtalks2017.