Students’ meal card donations to food pantries hinder colleges’ bottom lines

Points for a Purpose at Northwestern University has raised more than $16,500 in food donations for area pantries.
(Anthony Souffle / Chicago Tribune)
Chicago Tribune

While studying at Northwestern University, Bryan Berger and Dean Meisel considered themselves somewhat detached from the community that had become their school-year hometown, Evanston.

In an effort to give back to their college community, Berger, of New Jersey, and Meisel, of Florida, pitched the idea to dining service administrators of converting excess credits on students’ university meal cards to food pantry donations in Evanston.

It turns out that someone else had thought of that already, although not at Northwestern. The two friends decided to join forces with Swipe Out Hunger by starting Points for a Purpose, the NU chapter of the growing national nonprofit that guides college students on how to donate unused credits on their meal plans to food banks and “food-insecure” classmates.

As simple as it sounds, establishing the program at Northwestern was a challenge, as it has been at many campuses.


Schools are reluctant to approve chapters, said Rachel Sumekh, Swipe Out Hunger’s co-founder and executive director, primarily because that means loss of revenue from unused portions of meal plans.

Campus dining plans take various forms. At Northwestern, they include a certain number of meals and a certain number of points to use at convenience stores on campus. At the end of the quarter, many students have excess points left on those meal plans. Points for a Purpose allows students to direct the dining service to transfer the revenue from those credits to a food pantry.

Many institutions and the private companies that provide their food services count on that money when formulating budgets, Sumekh added.

At Northwestern, Berger and Meisel encountered a dining service administration that liked the concept of Swipe Out Hunger but balked at the notion of losing money, Berger said. The sides reached a compromise.

Dining services would pass along food credits to a local pantry up to a maximum of $2,000. After that amount was reached, students could purchase nonperishable food at campus convenience stores and donate the food at bins in the stores. Points for a Purpose also allows students to donate food credits on the group’s website through a PayPal account, Berger added.

“We thought that this was a really flawed system that needed some reform,” Berger said of the food service credit system at Northwestern. Meisel said the two thought the system could be run more efficiently and help the community.

Northwestern approved the plan late that first year, 2013, and the two friends rushed to organize the inaugural “points drive,” which garnered a total of $1,245 in about nine days, an amount that pleasantly surprised Berger and Meisel.

Since that first drive, Northwestern’s Points for a Purpose has raised more than $16,500 in food donations for area pantries and donated about 100 pounds of nonperishable foods, said Berger, 21, a senior from Plainsboro, N.J., majoring in manufacturing and design engineering.


Those contributions are part of Swipe Out Hunger’s network of 15 universities and colleges across the U.S. that have contributed more than 1.2 million meals, Sumekh said. Swipe Out Hunger started in 2009 with a handful of friends at UCLA who bought meals with extra meal credits and distributed the food to homeless people, she added.

Since then, the Los Angeles-based nonprofit has been honored at the White House as a Champion of Change and has been contacted by students interested in starting chapters at more than 120 schools, Sumekh said.

“The fact that we have only 15 chapters is a reflection of how tough it is,” she added.

Rachel Tilghman, director of communications and engagement for Northwestern Dining, said the school is “very excited to have students who want to give, and we’re happy to be part of the program.” Points for a Purpose is a way that every student can contribute to the community in “simple and impactful” ways, she added.


University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign soon might join Northwestern on Swipe Out Hunger’s roster.

Samantha Barnes, 20, a junior chemical engineering major at the school, is pitching the idea of a chapter there. Like Northwestern, U. of I.'s dining services administrators support the concept but worry about lost revenue, she said.

Barnes, of Skokie, is trying to solve that problem by proposing that her chapter set up a “packaged meal” in dining halls that students could buy with a swipe of their cards. Dining services then would donate the price of that meal to a food pantry.

She also has enlisted the support of student groups and professors, which “gives us a well-rounded support group who really wants this to happen,” Barnes said. She hopes the program will be up and running by the end of the school year or early next fall.


Meisel, 22, a senior economics major from Boca Raton, Fla., said raising money is one aspect of what he and Berger started at Northwestern. They also have a wider goal.

“A lot of this is about making Northwestern students passionate about the issue,” Meisel said, “and aware that five minutes away from our beautiful campus we have people struggling just to put food on the table.”

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