Food Pantries Merge to Fight Campus Hunger

Swipe Out Hunger and the College and University Food Bank Alliance join forces to reach more campuses and end food insecurity for students.

October 28, 2021
 
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Food insecurity among college students has become a pressing issue on campuses across the country.

In an effort to reach more students struggling with food insecurity, Swipe Out Hunger, a nonprofit addressing hunger among college students, announced last week it was merging with the College and University Food Bank Alliance (CUFBA), a network of campus food pantries across the U.S.

Under the arrangement, the team behind Swipe Out Hunger will take over CUFBA. In return, Swipe Out Hunger will fundraise and provide CUFBA’s network with food pantry consultation and financial support. Rachel Sumekh, founder and CEO of Swipe Out Hunger, said the two organizations have been working together since 2015 and began discussing the merger earlier this year, largely as a way to give CUFBA more infrastructure. Swipe Out Hunger will also integrate CUFBA’s best practices into its own curriculum to develop tools, guides and information to bolster its food security efforts. Since there are no full-time employees at CUFBA, no staff will be acquired in the acquisition. Sumekh said it was an opportunity to realize the two organizations’ shared vision of creating campuses that are truly hunger-free.

“They came to us early this year, and said, ‘Hey, would you be interested in taking this over and giving CUFBA a good home that it deserves where it can grow and flourish?’” Sumekh said. “And to be honest with you, I had many other plans this year, but this is just too important of an opportunity.”

Swipe Out Hunger partners with institutions to design and implement a range of antihunger programs, including the Swipe Drive, which enables students to donate dining dollars or swipes from their meal plan to their peers facing food insecurity on campus. So far, they’ve donated 2.5 million meals, a number Sumekh said will only increase through the merger with CUFBA.

The merger allows Swipe Out Hunger to expand its network from 145 campuses to nearly 1,000, including the more than 800 institutions that CUFBA serves. Swipe Out Hunger also plans to establish a $100,000 fund to distribute microgrants to campus pantries that join the network, many of which lack the resources to buy food or find staff, she said. So far, 70 institutions have applied for microgrants, but she expects that number to grow. Winners will be chosen by lottery and will receive roughly $3,000 apiece.

“We are not typically an organization that gives funds directly to colleges to fund their antihunger work,” Sumekh said. “But when we were going to make this announcement, it was very important for us to be able to come to the table with actual resources.”

Food insecurity among college students has become a pressing issue on campuses across the country. According to a report from Swipe Out Hunger and Chegg, an education-technology company, 29 percent of college students have missed at least one meal a week since the start of the pandemic. More than half of all students -- 52 percent -- used off-campus food banks during the pandemic, and 30 percent used them once a month or more.

The pandemic made obtaining sufficient food especially challenging for students who live off campus and may have lost their part-time jobs, a report by the National Education Association found. And it wasn’t only undergraduates who needed help; the NEA noted that graduate students, low-paid support employees and adjunct faculty faced food insecurity, too.

Additionally, since 2015 roughly 60 percent of community college students in 42 states have suffered basic needs insecurity, with one in seven experiencing homelessness, according to a new report from the Hope Center for College, Community and Justice. The number of community college students with basic needs insecurity “either remained steady or grew during the COVID-19 pandemic,” the report found. It cited Amarillo College, located in the Texas panhandle, as an example of a community college that successfully helped students meet their basic needs by establishing a single-stop Advocacy and Resource Center, which identified students from low-income households and nudged them to utilize the center. By emailing invitations, the college increased the center’s usage rate from 22 percent to 56 percent, which in turn boosted successful completion of mandatory developmental education courses.

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Sumekh said the pandemic allowed institutions to talk openly about food insecurity on campus -- an issue that’s always been present, she added. During the pandemic, institutions ramped up fundraising efforts to meet students’ basic needs, including food, as well as mental health resources, she noted.

“I feel like that opened the door for our issue,” Sumekh said. “So many schools were not proud of their antihunger programs and would deny that they had hungry students, because they wanted full-tuition-paying students to come to their schools and their parents to come to their schools.”

The pandemic forced institutions to put their food pantries and resources online for students, she said. The University of North Alabama, for example, created an online forum where students could select groceries and pick them up on campus the next day. Working directly with students allowed Swipe Out Hunger to understand each campus’s specific food insecurity needs.

“A lot of Swipe Out Hunger’s success is because students who want to start a program reached out and were like, ‘How do I do this?’” Sumekh said. “And they keep pushing until they’re able to get their school onboard. So having student voices at the center of this work is critical.”

Michael Higgins, a student at Columbia University and co-founder of the food pantry on its campus -- which was a member of CUFBA -- said the Columbia pantry has an “unusual” relationship with Swipe Out Hunger; the pantry gets funding from Columbia, so it doesn’t need to collect meal swipes for hungry students. However, Higgins said the pantry and Swipe Out Hunger cross-promote food insecurity information and resources.

Since Columbia started the pantry in 2016, it has only become more vital, Higgins said.

“The need itself has grown exponentially over the years,” Higgins said. “That primarily has to do not only with us bringing awareness to food insecurity within the university, but also the university acknowledging that there is an actual need.”

Higgins noted that there was a significant spike in food pantry usage at the height of the pandemic, from March through June of 2020, but it has trailed off since.

“However, the usage that we have now is at least two to three times higher than what it was pre-pandemic,” he said. “Food insecurity is not new. It’s something that people hid from everyone else because of the stigma associated with it.”

The merger between Swipe Out Hunger and CUFBA will help keep the issue front and center on participating campuses. Swipe Out Hunger is creating an online hub for its partner institutions and for students to share best practices and participate in monthly webinars. The online hub will also provide how-to guides and case studies for institutions that teach them how to access healthy food, engage students and create marketing that doesn’t stigmatize the issue.

Additionally, the organization will create a leadership council of campus food pantry staff, whether they’re students or full-time college administrators, to help Swipe Out Hunger chart a professional course going forward, Sumekh said, since they have gained such a prominent role on campus.

Food pantries are not going to end hunger, Sumekh noted, but they can help institutions manage and address the issue. Above all, adding food pantries on campus lets students know their institutions care about them.

“The sense of social inclusion and then thinking about how excluded, left out and isolated students felt otherwise, you can’t really measure that,” Sumekh said. “But just knowing how much programs like these help students who are first generation, low income, nontraditional feel welcome on campus is amazing.”

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