Op-Ed: The state of ‘Swipe it Forward’ and combating food insecurity at Tufts

When you’re a first-year, it’s easy to swipe into the dining hall in between classes, where the main source of conflict over food is whether to go to Carm or Dewick. You’re likely to see a few classmates you recognize, and there is little hesitation to suggest meeting in the dining halls to hang out with friends. Not to mention, the variety of food offered in the dining halls allows students to eat healthy, balanced meals if you have access to a meal plan.

But that’s a big “if.” Meal plans are costly, and as students struggle to pay rising tuition rates, any chance to cut corners makes a difference, even if that means skipping a few meals a week. A meal plan of 220 meal swipes bought through Tufts Dining costs $2,926, and a single lunch swipe costs $12.53. Students who opt to go on low-numbered meal plans or no meal plan at all risk skipping meals, endangering their physical and mental well-being and losing access to the important social space dining halls provide.

Dean Robert Mack and his office, the Office of Student Success and Advising, identified food insecurity as a campus-wide problem early last year and asked Tufts Community Union (TCU) Senate to collaborate on a meal-bank project where students can donate their meals swipes to other students in need. We worked with Dean Mack to create a program called Swipe it Forward with former TCU Senators Celeste Teng and Olive Baerde. The structure of the program is simple, and we purposefully designed Swipe it Forward to be as convenient as possible. For the spring 2017 launch, students on Premium meal plans were able to donate one meal swipe and students on numbered meal plans were able to donate up to four through an online form. All Arts and Sciences and Engineering students were able to request up to six meals through an online form — there were no prerequisites or questions asked because we don’t want students to have to justify why they are requesting meals.

Student feedback welcomed the pilot, not only as a means of getting food when they lacked critical resources such as time and money, but also as a way to access the social space offered by the dining halls. One Tufts senior shared that as a low-income student, she’s had to opt out of a meal plan every year after her first year simply because she could not afford one. By requesting meals, she was able to make lunch plans with friends who she would have otherwise not had time to see. A junior felt similarly and said the meal bank allowed them to eat with friends in the dining hall and not feel ostracized for being low-income. This was especially salient for upperclassmen, who found a narrowed social space when they were no longer on meal plans. Another senior added that the meal bank helped him build relationships with first-year students. Swipe it Forward has provided greater access to dining halls, supporting and strengthening community at Tufts.

During Swipe it Forward’s pilot semester, 949 students donated meal swipes; of those students, 712 students had a Premium meal plan and donated one meal. Two hundred thirty-seven students had a meal plan other than a Premium plan and, on average, donated three meals. Ten different departments and offices donated a total of 380 meals, making for a total of 1,760 meal swipes donated. Two hundred fifty students requested meals from the meal bank. The meal bank was almost depleted of meals by the end of April.

Despite these significant accomplishments, we have encountered several challenges throughout the process of creating a meal program that helps students who need meals get the resources they deserve. Namely, we have pushed to expand Swipe it Forward to include SMFA students who do not all live on the Medford/Somerville campus. We recognize that reaching SMFA students is critical in combating food insecurity at Tufts; while food insecurity is a problem on the Medford/Somerville campus, SMFA students are considered a high-need student population.

Currently, SMFA students can either be on a Tufts Dining meal plan or an Emmanuel College meal plan because there are no full-service dining options on the SMFA campus. SMFA students are left with few dining options, and because students have to commute between the Fenway campus and Medford/Somerville campus, purchasing a Tufts meal plan is frequently not worth the high cost. In the current iteration of Swipe it Forward, SMFA students will be able to request meal swipes to the Medford/Somerville campus dining halls, a resource we hope will help alleviate some of the pressure of finding their next meal.

In addition, as a team, we are working on targeted outreach to students who would especially benefit from a program like Swipe it Forward. During the spring 2017 iteration of Swipe it Forward, we found that a large percentage of meal swipe requests came from students who were not on financial aid. While we are happy to serve students who may just be in need of a quick meal, our top priority for the program is to help the students who lack access to the sustenance and social spaces dining halls provide. When requesting meals from the meal bank, ask yourself these questions: Have you ever skipped a meal because you couldn’t afford groceries that week? Did you ever feel like you were eating less than you should or were hungry but didn’t eat at all? Are you unable to eat with friends because you are not able to afford a meal plan?

In raising awareness about Swipe it Forward, we hope that Tufts students will recognize that food insecurity on this campus does exist, that there are fellow classmates who are struggling to eat, and that we can all do something about it. Swipe it Forward is by no means the perfect solution. We recognize that meaningfully combating food insecurity means providing students with access to affordable meal plans and a variety of food options. But while we are addressing the root causes, short-term solutions like Swipe it Forward do make a significant difference in the lives of students, and these programs can only continue to exist with the commitment and help of all members of the Tufts community. If you are able to, please donate to the Swipe it Forward meal bank by Oct. 31 by visiting go.tufts.edu/meals.