Students across the US are growing increasingly dissatisfied with wasteful college dining plans. That includes graduating senior Roland Hesmondhalgh, who spent his unused meal credits to buy thousands of dollars’ worth of groceries for a local food bank over the past three years.
Hesmondhalgh became frustrated at the end of his spring semester in April 2017 at Florida Institute of Technology in Melbourne, Florida. He had leftover “Flex dollars” — money allocated on a credit system that is used to purchase food, snacks, and school supplies. Flex dollars don’t roll over semester to semester, and Hesmondhalgh didn't want his leftover cash to simply go back to the college.
Instead, he racked up a $1,200 bill in groceries at the on-campus convenience store and donated them to the South Brevard Sharing Center, a nonprofit agency that provides food, clothing, household items, and clothing to families in need. Hesmondhalgh continued donating every spring, and this year he delivered nearly $1,300 worth of nonperishables.
“It didn’t make sense to me,” Hesmondhalgh told Global Citizen of his disappointment with Florida Tech’s meal plan system. “I tried to buy enough extra cans of soup to cover the difference or give meals to friends, but it just didn’t work out.”
When Hesmondhalgh first donated to the South Brevard Sharing Center, other students were apathetic and skeptical. Members of the student government and resident advisers at Florida Tech told him he wasn’t allowed. Hesmondhalgh shared his idea with a cafeteria food services official on campus who said food donations are too much of a liability. The official then showed Hesmondhalgh a machine used to pulp and dehydrate extra food before sending it to a landfill, which the official said decreases the amount of space utilized for food waste.
WOW for #kindnesschampion#RolandHesmondhalgh⭐️ This @FloridaTech#student used the leftover #foodplan $1300 to buy #food for a #foodbank😊 Perhaps Roland will start a ripple of #gooddeeds for #college students to do the same💜 @MSN#kindnessrocks❤️ https://t.co/8iM9U8r2A9— Operation Kindness (@Kindness_Rocs) June 23, 2019
The South Brevard Sharing Center is shocked and grateful every time Hesmondhalgh drops off a donation, he said. And his contribution goes a long way –– the food bank has a monthly budget of about $1,000 to provide food and clothing to about 200 families, according to MSN.
Hesmondhalgh tried to convince his peers to use their leftover Flex money to donate food but so far he said he hasn’t had much luck. The South Brevard Sharing Center hasn’t received any food donations from other Florida Tech students yet.
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Historically, universities turn to food as a revenue source in response to a lack of higher education funding, according to Rachel Sumekh, who founded the organization Swipe Out Hunger in 2013 at the University of California, Los Angeles.
“Food should not be a commodity, it should be a basic right,” Sumekh told Global Citizen.
Swipe Out Hunger is one of many initiatives launched by students and educators in recent years to combat food waste on college campuses and reform expensive meal programs.
Through her organization, Sumekh started to help students convert unused meal swipes into sandwiches for the homeless but now focuses on addressing student hunger on 80 campuses in 31 states, and encourages students to donate meal swipes to their peers.
“No one else was even trying to help students. The resources students did have were woefully inadequate,” Sumekh said.
Swipe Out Hunger decided to stop providing food for the homeless because it found that meal swipes had a higher value when they could be redeemed in dining halls. Sumekh said there are many students like Roland who are eager to support their peers.
That’s illustrated by a similar program launched in 2013 at New York University (NYU). There, educator Jon Chin created Share Meals, a digital platform that lets students share extra meal swipes with other students. He worked with NYU administrators to redesign meal plans to be more affordable and less wasteful. He told Global Citizen that expanding the network of restaurants and retail locations is one way to prevent unused meal credits. Students are more likely to use all of their Flex dollars if they have more food options.
For those who want to get involved in fighting student hunger and campus waste, Both Sumekh and Chin recommend reaching out to their organizations. Sumekh also encourages students to email their deans of students and ask what they are doing to ensure everyone on campus has access to food.
Breaking the stigma around food insecurity is also crucial, Chin said. He suggests inviting friends to share meals and joining online communities that facilitate paying it forward by swiping in strangers.
As for Hesmondhalgh, an aspiring journalist, he’s spending the summer taking a course at NYU. But he says he’ll miss Florida Tech, despite its meal program.
“The food donation was one of the things I looked forward to the most,” he said. “I’m still annoyed that I had to buy the meal plan every semester but I knew I could give food to people who need it.”