Opinion | Op-eds

Got meal swipes?

Have you ever joined a student organization just for the free food? Or gone through the arduous process of applying for food stamps—only to be denied at Morton Williams? What about stocking up on peanut butter and cereal from Ferris before the dining halls close for a holiday break?

Many Columbia students face food insecurity at some point, whether because of delayed work-study checks, crippling student loans, or other factors. Food insecurity cuts across lines of race, gender, and socioeconomic status. It can mean everything from skipping dinner because you can’t afford it, to planning your entire week’s schedule around events with free food.

However, in its most pernicious form, it means going hungry. And according to some of my friends at Columbia, that can mean significant weight loss, or even fainting in Hamilton due to low blood sugar.

Here at Columbia, a university with a multi-billion dollar endowment, people still go hungry. And with most students coming from upper-middle class backgrounds, coming out as a person facing food insecurity can ignite feelings of social ignominy.

At some grocery stores where I’m from, they only have a single machine that takes the food stamp card. Therefore, if my family wanted to use our card, the cashier would have to ring a bell to call the manager. The manager would would walk us over to the “food stamp register” so that one of us could swipe the card and put in the pin.

I still remember the first time my family’s food stamps were denied. My family was forced to abandon a cart of $200 worth of groceries up at checkout. It was a common story among many others I grew up with, who would share their stories about food stamps during daily conversation. While food insecurity, food stamps, and a lack of money is a conversation starter where I’m from, it’s much less so at Columbia.

However, as a board member of FLIP, I’ve seen this issue move from something talked about on Class Confessions—a Facebook page on which students anonymously express their feelings about class inequality at Columbia—to an issue that our community directly took action to fix with the creation of CU Meal Share. Class Confessions has transformed students’ feelings of rage and hopelessness into a burning desire to help solve the problem. And now, the next generation of student-led initiatives has arrived to dismantle the stigma our culture of indifference has erected around the issue, and to get food to those who need it.  

Soon after the announcement of the Emergency Meal Fund, Swipes—an app developed by two Columbia College students—came to the table to serve as a more efficient way to serve people in need of meal swipes.

For those facing food insecurity, these swipes help to alleviate some of the stress. While there is no panacea right now, the fact that people go out of their way to help each other every day is incredibly heartwarming.

The creation of Swipes exemplifies this. Seeing the crucial significance of CU Meal Share, about a dozen people approached FLIP over the span of a month or two. Julio Henriquez and Helson Taveras, both CC ’18, created Swipes. In doing so, they went out of their way to create something good for the community. As Adam Croxton, GS ’18, notes in his recent op-ed, “[don’t] wish ill will on the university bureaucrat who can’t seem to help you fulfill your basic physiological needs. The system is broken.” Because of this broken system, the community and the programs that volunteers have created are truly helpful.

As someone who has faced food insecurity in the past, it’s awe-inspiring for me to see the trope of collective indifference evolve into a paradigm of active benevolence. The coming together of the campus community to support these initiatives is paramount for the well-being of Columbia as a whole.

I’m in a good position right now, and I don’t have to worry about chronic food insecurity. But for many, like the anonymous student who only ate a few slices of pizza over the course of spring break, or for Jordan Franks, BC ’18, who spoke to Spectator last year about only having 91 cents in her bank account for three weeks straight, the EMF, Swipes, and CU Meal Share present a much needed beacon of hope during difficult times.

The author is a Barnard College sophomore majoring in urban studies. She is also a board member of the Columbia First-Generation Low-Income Partnership.

To respond to this op-ed, or to submit an op-ed, contact opinion@columbiaspectator.com.

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