Free meal swipes: Gaithersburg-based Sodexo tackles campus food insecurity

Gaithersburg-based food services company Sodexo North America is partnering with California nonprofit Swipe Out Hunger for a pilot program to provide free meal swipes. (Courtesy Sodexo North America)

College students don’t always make the most nutritious food choices. But for some, regular access to sufficient meals — let alone nutritious ones — is a challenge.

It is estimated that at any given time, as many as one in three college students faces food insecurity, or lack of expendable money to feed themselves properly.

Gaithersburg,Maryland-based food services company Sodexo North America is partnering with California nonprofit Swipe Out Hunger for a pilot program on a handful of campuses it serves.

“It is really more than eating pizza and ramen,” Sodexo’s Leila Cosca told WTOP of the problem of food insecurity. “It is about skipping meals. It is about not having access to nutritious foods. It is something that really affects students’ success.”

Swipe Out Hunger’s program is in place at dozens of college campuses across the country. It allows students with extra meals on their dining hall meal cards to donate them to a pool, which in turn can be passed on to students in need.

For Sodexo’s pilot, it will provide two free meals for every full-time student meal plan sold. At the first 13 campuses it will provide the aid, Sodexo estimates that will result in more than 25,000 free meals annually.

Sodexo will make qualifying for the assistance easy and anonymous.

“We are trying to keep it simple,” Cosca said. “We are working with campus partners to try to minimize the qualifications for students.”

She added: “Swipe Out Hunger will be working with our campuses to create websites for each of the campuses for students to easily apply to get swipes. Then the swipes will be quickly transferred to student ID cards.”

To protect student privacy, the safety-net dining plan cards will look the same as standard dining plan cards.

“This program is the first large-scale program of its kind within the food service industry and we know it will make a significant impact on students’ lives and their overall well-being,” said Rachel Sumekh, founder and CEO of Swipe Out Hunger. “We’ve learned to never underestimate the power of a meal swipe.”

Swipe Out Hunger was founded by a group of friends at UCLA in 2010. It has spread to over 80 colleges, and has served 1.7 million meals to date.

Based on its experience, the nonprofit says 72% of students eat more regularly after receiving donated swipes, and more than half report performing better in class and on exams.

Sodexo says after the initial pilot program, it intends to make the program available at college campuses it serves nationwide in the fall of the 2020-2021 academic year.

Jeff Clabaugh

Jeff Clabaugh has spent 20 years covering the Washington region's economy and financial markets for WTOP as part of a partnership with the Washington Business Journal, and officially joined the WTOP newsroom staff in January 2016.

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