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Courtesy of Everytable

While Santa Monica College’s Center for Media Design is conveniently located in the California city’s entertainment district, the area lacks convenient and affordable food options for students and faculty.

To solve the campus’s “food desert” problem, the college is working with a company that adjusts the costs of its food to match the needs of the area.

Everytable, a social enterprise business based in Los Angeles, prepares fresh and healthy meals in a central kitchen and then prices them according to the neighborhood. While the company has several locations around Los Angeles, it is now branching out to colleges to help solve food insecurity on campuses.

Lizzy Moore, president of the Santa Monica College Foundation and dean of institutional advancement at the college, said she reached out to Sam Polk, cofounder of Everytable, when she realized the company's goals.

“When I started front-loading Sam with all of this data about food insecurity, it was eye-opening for him, and at the same time, it hit the nail on the head with what they’re trying to do with food deserts,” Moore said. “What I love about working with Everytable is the innovative approach to addressing a current problem that really needs support from an angel that identifies with what we’re trying to accomplish here.”

To save costs, Everytable’s meals are prepared in a central kitchen, then packaged in grab-and-go containers. When Polk opens a new location, it doesn’t require professional kitchens or additional chefs. And a location can cost as little as $150,000 and require only two employees, Polk said.

This also lets the company vary its prices. More affluent locations, such as Brentwood, will find meals priced at $8. But underserved communities will pay as little as $5.

“Everytable was basically founded on the idea that healthy food is a human right and shouldn’t be a luxury product,” Polk said.

Polk realized the model could be beneficial for colleges, where the food options can often be unhealthy, pricey or unavailable at certain times of day or different points in a semester.

The company's first college location has been open at California State University, Los Angeles, for about a year. It features a “pay it forward board” where people can pay for a meal and then write a note of support on the board. Those who can’t afford a meal can grab one of the notes and use it as cash.

The campus restaurant is Everytable’s highest-volume location, Polk said.

Now, the business is working with other colleges in the state to address food insecurity on a broader level. They are talking with several institutions, including East Los Angeles College and California State University, Northridge, about installing “SmartFridges,” which let students purchase a meal at any time with a credit card similar to a vending machine.

Only Part of the Solution

Rachel Sumekh, founder and CEO of the nonprofit Swipe Out Hunger, said it’s heartening to see businesses like Everytable step in to address food insecurity on campuses

“The financial model of food in higher education is quite broken right now,” she said. Sumekh’s nonprofit lets students share extra meal-plan money with friends who need it. It's also working as a “clearinghouse of best practices,” she said.

“Collaboration in our sector, as more people recognize the scale of the issue of student hunger and work together as opposed to working in silos, is the way that we actually serve our students best,” she said.

At Santa Monica, Everytable will be opening a SmartFridges café at the Center for Media Design. In lieu of paying rent, Everytable will be donating extra meals to the college’s food-insecure students each week, Moore said. The amount will vary depending on how much is left over from other stores, but it will be at least 300 meals each week and could be as many as 600 meals.

While the Hispanic-serving college has a prime location, Moore said, “the lion’s share of our population comes from outside Santa Monica and takes the metro.”

The Hope Center for College, Community and Justice at Temple University surveyed students at the college in 2018. Of the 819 respondents, 54 percent said they were food insecure in the previous 30 days.

The college has 10 food pantries spread across seven campuses for its 31,000 students, Moore said, as well as partnerships that allow it to donate 1,000 pounds of produce from local farmers to its students each week.

Keith Curry, president and CEO of Compton College, said his institution will be selling free and reduced price Everytable dinners to students this fall. Nearly 60 percent of Compton students are food insecure, according to Curry.

While students at Compton get meal vouchers they can use at the cafeteria during daytime hours, they might also need help for later meals if they are taking evening classes or working on projects later in the day. Curry said he wanted to find a better option for students than fast food meals.

People of color are often at greater risk of heart disease, Curry said, so he feels responsible for providing healthier, affordable or free meals to Compton’s students, a majority of whom are Latinx or black.

But Everytable won’t solve the issue completely. Curry said food pantries and similar enterprises are a “short-term solution to a long-term problem." A more durable fix, he said, would be federal free and reduced lunches for community college students.

While students may receive free and reduced lunch in high school, he said, they can still experience hunger and food insecurity when they graduate and go to community college.

Right now, he said, students face a puzzle that includes pieces like Everytable, subsidized food vouchers, housing assistance and more.

Mamie Voight, vice president of policy research at the Institute for Higher Education Policy, said the focus should be on increasing need-based financial aid so students can afford basic needs while in college. Institutions should also be tackling the issues with creative solutions, she said.

“I think these creative opportunities to partner with other organizations or companies to provide students with the food that they need and nutrition that they need is a step in the right direction,” Voight said.

However, colleges can’t rely on companies for everything, she said. They also need to invest their own resources into solutions, like expanding dining hall hours and connecting students to food vouchers, as well as nurturing other local relationships.

“Schools shouldn’t be relying on private companies to come in and solve the problem,” she said. “Schools need to be driving the bus.”

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