When 1 in 10 Kids on Campus Doesn’t Have Enough to Eat: Inside the Campaign to Help Feed Hungry College Students

Joshua Ibarra, a student in his fourth year of studying journalism and Japanese at East Los Angeles College, faces a daily challenge of choosing between transportation to school or having enough food to sustain him throughout the day. Due to his limited budget, he cannot afford both. Ibarra refrains from using the school cafeteria as he lacks a meal plan, and the prices of food items have significantly increased by $2 to $3, making it difficult for him to afford. In times of hunger during class, he perseveres and relies on friends or the possibility of finding free food at school events.

Ibarra’s situation is not unique, as 13 percent of students in two-year colleges and 11 percent in four-year schools do not have enough food to eat. These students who face food insecurity are more likely to miss classes, drop out of courses, or be unable to purchase required textbooks. Insufficient food intake is associated with poorer health, lower academic performance, and in some cases, anxiety and depression, imposing additional obstacles for low-income students pursuing higher education.

The issue of college students not having enough to eat gained national attention in November when students at Spelman and Morehouse colleges in Atlanta initiated a hunger strike. The strike aimed to change a policy that prohibited students from donating their unused meals to classmates in need. In solidarity with approximately 1,400 students on both campuses who lacked meal plans or regular access to food, student protesters consumed only vitamins and water during the week-long strike.

Eventually, a solution was reached between Aramark, a $9 billion food service company, and Spelman College to alleviate food insecurity on campus. Spelman president Mary Schmidt Campbell announced that the college would provide up to 7,000 meals during the second semester to off-campus students facing hunger. A petition circulated, proposing the implementation of a Swipe Out Hunger system at Spelman and Morehouse, allowing students to share excessive meal card swipes.

Rachel Sumekh, the founder and CEO of Swipe Out Hunger, has been collaborating with student leaders and administrators to introduce the "Swipes" program to the campus. As a long-time advocate for hunger-free campuses, Sumekh believes that a student’s access to basic needs like food should never hinder their journey towards obtaining a diploma. Since its establishment in 2009, the nonprofit organization has partnered with colleges and provided over 1.4 million meals to food-insecure students across 36 campuses.

Sumekh highlights that these are the same students who qualified for free or reduced-price lunches during their earlier school years. She questions why it is accepted to provide free food to K-12 students but not to college students. She advocates for extending the same compassion towards college students and ensuring that their basic needs are met.

Receiving recognition on Forbes’ 30 Under 30 Social Entrepreneurs in 2017, Sumekh sees her organization as a catalyst for change and hopes to share its success with other institutions. She emphasizes that colleges have a responsibility to address the fundamental needs of their students.

In June, California governor Jerry Brown signed a state budget allocating $2.5 million each to the UC, CSU, and California Community College systems. The funds aim to develop Swipe Out Hunger meal-credit sharing programs, establish campus food pantries, and provide training for college staff to assist students in enrolling for food stamps.

Sumekh reveals that she recently received an email from a higher education official in New York governor Andrew Cuomo’s administration, expressing interest in implementing a Swipes program at SUNY Albany.

Contrary to the perception that college students survive solely on ramen noodles, Ibarra, aged 23, lives with his grandmother and works part-time as a nightclub security guard to finance his education. Even when he received financial aid, Ibarra admits to encountering ongoing challenges.

College education comes with a hefty price tag. The cost of college textbooks has skyrocketed by more than 1,000 percent since 1977, with the average price now ranging from $200 to $400 per book.

One college student named Ibarra shared his financial struggles. After paying for school supplies, health insurance fees, and other incidental expenses, he explained that nearly half of his funds are depleted within the first two months of the semester.

Unfortunately, as the cost of higher education continues to rise, financial aid programs may be diminishing. The Higher Education Act is currently being rewritten by Congress. The GOP-controlled House has proposed the PROSPER Act, also known as the "Promoting Real Opportunity, Success, and Prosperity Through Education Reform Act". However, this act could potentially harm low-income students by eliminating the Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant, which provided up to $4,000 for students with exceptional financial need in the 2015-2016 school year.

The issue of college student hunger is an ongoing problem. It is perpetuated by outdated stereotypes that romanticize the hardships of university life. Nisha Sumekh, who works at Swipe Out Hunger, believes that this narrative distracts from the reality of the situation. She argues that the struggles faced by students should not be seen as a rite of passage but rather as a problem that needs to be addressed.

Swipe Out Hunger is actively working to change the narrative surrounding college student hunger. They have created images, such as replacing the words "Cup of Noodles" with "Swipe Out Hunger" on a ramen noodle cup, in order to draw attention to the issue and reject the notion of the "broke college student".

Both Ibarra and Sumekh come from families who have little understanding of the college experience. Ibarra, the first in his family to attend college, acknowledges the disconnect between his family’s perception of college and the reality he faces. Sumekh, a first-generation American, faced her own challenges in navigating college, partly due to her parents’ lack of knowledge about resources such as the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).

As the CEO of Swipe Out Hunger, Sumekh is acutely aware of the food insecurity that many college students face. She emphasizes that their goal is not to provide handouts but rather to offer a helping hand. She shares her own family’s experience with food stamps, which allowed them the means to pursue the American dream. Sumekh believes that supporting college students in need is a worthwhile investment, as it can help them achieve greater earning potential and fulfill their dreams.

By signing up for Newsletter, you can receive more stories like these directly in your inbox.


  • declanryan

    Declan Ryan is a 25-year-old blogger who specializes in education. He has a degree in education from a top university and has been blogging about education for the past four years. He is a regular contributor to several popular education blogs and has a large following on social media. He is passionate about helping students and educators alike and is always looking for new ways to improve education.