Repair the World recently launched our High Holiday campaign, focused on advancing racial justice and building relationships between communities. There are many different ways to get involved (Learn about the root causes of racial injustice in America. Host or attend a Turn the Tables dinner. Take action in solidarity with our neighbors as a multiracial Jewish community.) – and we encourage you to explore them all.
Meanwhile, we will be introducing you to some of our favorite change makers. Here’s Rachel Sumekh, the Founding Executive Director of Swipe Out Hunger. Sumekh co-founded the organization – which lets students donate unused points from university meal plans to feed peers and community members facing hunger – during her sophomore year at UCLA. Today, Swipe Out Hunger exists on 23 campuses across the country, and is changing the conversation about poverty and food insecurity on college campuses. Read on…
What was the inspiration behind Swipe Out Hunger?
It started out because we were annoyed with the university for creating meal plans where students who had excess points at the end of a semester lost them. It began informally, with students going into dining halls and buying meals to go, then giving them to homeless and other food insecure people. But the university had some issues with this model. Fortunately, rather than stopping us, they said we should develop a new model. Today, if a student has extra meal swipes, they can opt into the Swipe Out Hunger program and convert that money into resources to help food insecure students.
How does Swipe Out Hunger work in practice?
We have two ways of supporting students. Some of the funds go to help keep food closets – rooms filled with pantry items and fresh food – stocked. And the majority of funds go to meal vouchers that a student can use to get into the campus dining hall for a meal. The vouchers can be accessed through the school’s social worker or resource center. This not only gives those students a meal, but provides students who cannot afford to live on campus an opportunity to partake in campus life.
Tell me a story that demonstrates Swipe Out Hunger’s impact.
At UCLA we have a guest book in the food closet where people who use the project can leave a note. One day, as students were restocking the closet, they read a note that said, ‘I’m a homeless student and this is saving my life.'” It is incredible to read something like that because you know that students who come here really need it, and you know how hard it can be to ask for help. But for someone to take the time to write a note like that, when they are so busy and have so much going on in their life, it is a reminder of why you do it in the first place.
The demographics are changing on college campuses. How does that change the need for projects like Swipe Out Hunger?
When universities were first created, they were designed for the elite class – for people who had the luxury to study instead of work. And people still tend to think about rich suburban white kids when they think about college students. But over time, that has evolved and today more and more students who get into college need help beyond traditional financial aid and scholarships. The same demographic of kids who got free lunch meals in grades K-12 may still need the support, but find that it doesn’t exist in college.
In California for example, 1 out of 10 students in the Cal State university system is literally homeless, and many don’t have consistent access to enough food. We want to help get these students onto schools’ radars.
What can colleges and universities do to help this work?
Colleges should be asking their students “Do you have access to food? Do you have stable housing?” and find solutions for students who are struggling. They also can aim to work with ethical partners when it comes to who they make dining contracts with. Our motto is, “Every college student has insecurities. We believe food shouldn’t be one of them. We want to help colleges and universities change the stigma and get the resources where they are needed.
What drives you to do the work you do?
I have never been hungry. My parents came to this country as immigrants and were on food stamps for a couple of years until they got on their feet. But we come from a community where people make sure that no one is left behind. As someone in a position of stability, I feel like I can’t not do this work.
What role do you think Jews should be playing in advancing social justice and food justice work?
Yom Kippur is coming up. In the afternoon service we read that if you see someone who is naked, clothe them. And if you see someone who is hungry, feed them. On the holiest day of the year, this is what we’re thinking about. Meanwhile, the rabbis say that, as Jews, we live on the edge between being insiders and outsiders. From that perspective, we can see things from both sides and have the opportunity to build bridges. That is our obligation.