Swipes program could reduce food insecurity among MU students

“Willing to swipe into Dobbs for $5” postings on class Facebook groups, students standing outside the numerous dining halls begging to swipe fellow students in at no charge and thousands of paid meal swipes unused as the semester comes to a close –sights students at the University of Missouri know all too well. While there is the abundance of potentially useable meal swipes at the end of each semester, there are also students who remain food insecure on campus each year.

Tiger Pantry, the student-run food pantry, strives to provide food assistance for those in need within the MU community while changing the perception of hunger and offering resources to students, faculty and staff who use its services.

“When most people hear about food banks or food pantries, they’re probably picturing a family and in our case, while we have families of students and faculty and staff, our primary customers are going to be single students,” said Nick Evans, a Department of Student Life coordinator who works with the various Missouri Student Association (MSA) Auxiliaries, one of which is Tiger Pantry.

Evans said that Tiger Pantry is trying to move beyond the concept of hunger and into food insecurity in the sense that there may be students who are skipping a meal a day but do not view themselves as food insecure. However, Tiger Pantry may view that differently and make a case for food insecurity.

“Our hope is that our students are able to get nutritious meals and be ready to learn … and be safe and healthy. It’s a bigger issue than probably people think it is on the surface,” Evans said.

As of April 2016, the campus pantry hit 100,000 pounds of food distributed to members of the MU family.

While Tiger Pantry provides nonperishable food items and other goods donated from student organizations, community members, and the Central Missouri Food Bank, there is not a current program in operation that deals with providing meal swipes to students who cannot afford to eat at one of the 10 dining plan locations scattered around the Columbia, Missouri, campus.

Faurok Aregbe, assistant director of Academic Retention Services (ARS) on campus, said “there’s been ideas and then there’s been practice” in regards to using meal swipes for the hungry. One idea put into practice was SWIPES.

Inactive for over a year now, SWIPES ceased to make better use of the “wasted” meal swipes at the end of each semester. In essence, students with meal plans living in the residence halls would go and use their remaining swipes to purchase items such as Gatorade or canned goods from the dining hall and bring them outside to a table of volunteers who would then donate the items to students in need. The University of Missouri defines a “swipe” as the number of meal credits available on an MU Dining Services meal plan.

According to the MU Campus Dining Services website, “meals do not carry over from one semester to the next; there is no refund for unused meals at the end of each semester.” Students can select from three options ranging from 11 to 17 meals per week and costing upwards of $3,660 per year. A recent New York Times article addressing the disparity in meal swipe usage credits the waste to dining policies as many colleges require dorm residents to buy meal plans while the college lifestyle often means missed dining hall meals; the biggest frustration is the wasted money that unused swipes represent.

As the former Coordinator of Student Government Services at MU with direct oversight to MSA Senate where Tiger Pantry originated, Aregbe has experience with SWIPES and its work on campus.

The Social Justice Committee within MSA Senate used to organize [SWIPES] … campus dining changed the way that they do points and also they changed the types of foods that were available that would be donate-able,” Aregbe said. Because of these changes, Aregbe believes that SWIPES is no longer a viable program, hence its discontinuation in spring of 2016.

“I also sympathize with Campus Dining in the sense that they have to run a facility, an operation, and they have to staff people and purchase perishable goods … and they need to do that on anticipated numbers of people eating, so I get that there won’t be an equal trade-off,” Evans said.

According to Evans, the topic of SWIPES comes up every year, usually at the end of the semester when students have a number of swipes left.

“I don’t think I will use all my swipes [this semester],” said Katie St. Pierre, a freshman agricultural economics major from Troy, Missouri. “I think it’s so much easier just to eat in my room and that’s what I’ve been doing so far.”

“My cousin last semester had a lot [of swipes] left during the last week of school and she came home for Christmas break with 90 bottles of blue Gatorade! She didn’t need all of that and it was just a waste … if there was an option to donate your swipes I think so many kids would do it,” St. Pierre said. She added, “it reminds me of when I would go to an arcade and you’d load all your tickets on the card. You’d pick out what you want and then anything I had left over I would always leave for the next person because I didn’t need it.”

The lack of a SWIPES program now, doesn’t mean campus did not support it.

“They never once thought we shouldn’t ever do this event,” Aregbe said. “If the event didn’t exist, you would basically not have anywhere from 500 to 2,000 pounds of food donated.”

Based on his prior experience with SWIPES, he believes that there is demand for something similar and that a program has to be simple so students are able to see an impact through participation.

Brooke Tate, a sophomore pre-med student who regularly volunteers with Tiger Pantry, said she thinks a program designed to make use of leftover meal swipes would be well received.

“Wow that’s a great idea,” Tate said. “That would be beneficial for so many students and we should definitely look into getting that done.”

One of the goals of the MSA Senate Social Justice Committee is to grow the SWIPES event showing an interest in revamping the program or starting something similar for University of Missouri dining plan holders in conjunction with the newly developed student meal plans.

“We’ve got to figure out what would work for MU because every school is different and once the students can figure that out and work through the proper channels then I think we get to something that works for MU,” Aregbe said.

“The student leaders want to talk to our constituency to see what people would prefer to do,” Evans said. He also suggested the project would not be feasible without a solid partnership between MU Campus Dining Services and Tiger Pantry.

However, Evans also believes that the intention of Tiger Pantry and on-campus dining services goes “well-beyond the SWIPES concept.”

“The primary driver of people who hold swipes are first-year students, and their schedules can be significantly different than older students or students with families,” Evans said.

These new students are mandated, per MU Residential Life Housing Policy Requirements, to reside for the first academic year in University-operated housing and have a dining plan.

To Evans, the issues goes far beyond the concept of SWIPES because, without having a majority of the MU campus using Campus Dining Services’ meal plans, most of the involvement with Tiger Pantry from the rest of campus comes in the form of food drives, presentations and awareness of insecurity and other issues.

“One of the things that we also are starting to come into light with is in a lot of cases it’s beyond just food insecurity, it’s dealing with poverty in general and understanding how everything ties together,” Evans said. “There’s not one magic answer that solves a particular issue when you’re dealing with poverty and access to safe, reliable transportation, education, healthcare … all of those things, all build into this big picture that is food insecurity and poverty.”

Holly Enowski

About the Author Holly Enowski

I am an Eldon, Missouri, native, best known for being “too busy” and for the circumstances of my birth – I am the only girl in a set of triplets! Born and raised on a family farm, agriculture has always been a large part of my life and growing up, that was not something that I always appreciated as I do now. Since the age of 5, I’ve been chasing big city dreams that led me to pursue a degree in science and agricultural journalism, and hopefully minors in rural sociology, agricultural economics, leadership and public service. I am interested in international food insecurity, policy, nutrition and a whole slew of other topics.