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CMU launches new food insecurity programs in response to student outcry


Leftover food from the day awaits students for the $1 Meal initiative on Jan. 23 in the Down Under Food Court in Bovee University Center. 

After thousands of students signed a petition and organized protests to demand a meal swipe donation program, Central Michigan University responded by quickly implementing a plan that allows students to help fight food insecurity.

As the spring 2020 semester began, so did the Meal Swipe Bank. The program allows students to request "surplus" meal swipes. 

Also introduced was the $1 Meals initiative, which allows students to purchase leftover food from the Down Under Food Court for $1. 

The push from students in mid-November caused the university to fast-track and put together a program that was ready in two months.

"Did the student feedback on Twitter and the poll that went out impact our timeline or expedite things? Absolutely," said Cal Seelye, executive director of Auxiliary Services. "We were working on them. We were hoping for a fall of 2020 launch. We are going out sooner than we anticipated."

Meal Swipe Bank

Each on-campus meal plan, regardless of the number of meals per week, comes with six guest swipes to be used by visitors throughout the semester. Since many students do not use all of their guest swipes, several thousand were left over from the fall semester, Seelye said. The leftover swipes from the fall semester will be used to start the pool of free meals for the Meal Swipe Bank.

Students can request meal swipes by filling out the online form on the Student Food Pantry's Engage Central page. After completing the form, they will receive confirmation. By the end of the next business day, 10 meals will be added their CentralCard.

“We are going to rely on the honesty of the individuals,” President Bob Davies told Central Michigan Life in November. “If someone requests, we are not going to ask questions, we’re not going to second guess. They will be given the swipes.”

Students are only able to request the meal swipes once a semester due to a federal law regarding gifts of monetary value.

"If a student receives $300 or more in free swipes, we are required by federal law, to count that amount  ($300+) as financial aid," Kirk Yats, director of the Office of Scholarships and Financial Aid, said. "Since students will be limited to around $250 or so in free swipes,  due to university policy,  we do not plan on any students having to count the free meals as financial aid."

Beginning Feb. 10, when all CMU meal plans are finalized, students who wish to donate their guest swipes to the Swipe Bank can do so by visiting the Campus Card Office in Bovee University Center. The CMU Food Pantry hopes to have guest swipe donation days at other locations throughout the semester.

Students Petition and Protest for Change

In November, students on Twitter began discussing how the university doesn't allow students to share their meal plans with others. They were also upset about the $25 fine for using someone else's CentralCard.

Following the tweets, Woodstock, Illinois senior Alexandra Garay created a petition requesting a meal swipe donation program that allows students to donate unused meal swipes to others, which has received nearly 6,000 signatures.

On Nov. 24, the Central Michigan Student Labor Union organized a protest to assist the cause outside of the Real Food on Campus (RFoC) dining hall in the Towers Residence Community.

Although CMU responded to the students by expediting the Swipe Bank, the program relies solely on guest swipes and not regular unused meal swipes.

Garay believes the model the university introduced this semester will allow room for the program to evolve, and she hopes it will evolve into what everyone envisioned.

"Truthfully, I don’t think that donating only guest swipes was what myself or other folks envisioned when we said we wanted a program like this at CMU. (But) we must start somewhere," Garay said. "It is a good start and various administrators have mentioned that their research shows that thousands of guest swipes go unused every semester. Now those students that don’t use them can help support an amazing resource."

Program Effects on CMU Budget

According to Seelye, donating the unused guest swipes for the base of the Swipe Bank has no effect on the university's budget. 

"We don’t factor (guest swipes) into our budget at all. Those are gifts, if you will, that we give students," Seelye said. He said the goal of the guest swipes is to allow visitors to see the dining halls and the food options available to students. 

"If we are able to use those swipes to start a food bank, then students are able to donate from their six guest passes. It has no impact on our budget whatsoever.” 

If the program allowed students to donate their weekly unused meal swipes, there would be an effect on the budget.

"Pricing structures for meal plans are based on absenteeism," Seelye said. "People go home for the weekend, people don’t wake up for breakfast, we know that there is an absenteeism there. We built that into the pricing structure, and that’s how we can lower the price for our meal plans."

Seelye said if the university starts allowing students to donate the meals on their meal plan, the absenteeism rate will go down. If the rate goes down, the university will have to look at how to make the expenses work, which would increase the prices of the meal plans, since it is based on how many people they anticipate using the entirety of their meal plans.

Unlike the Meal Swipe Bank, which is not factored into the budget, the $1 Meals program costs the university money.

$1 Meals

The $1 Meals program consists of leftover food from the residential restaurants that will be packaged and sold between 6-7 p.m. every Monday and Thursday in the Down Under Food Court, located on the lower level of Bovee University Center.

"The goal is to gauge how much this specific resource is used," Food Pantry Graduate Assistant Kourtney Koch said. "If we needed to add more days, we would long term. But we didn't want to start five days a week and not have enough students use it." 

The meals may include soup, salad, sandwiches, pasta or any other leftover food.

Although there is no eligibility necessary to purchase the meals, they can only be purchased with cash.

"People have asked why do we (charge) $1 at all? Why is it not free? But there are expenses that go with it," Seelye said. "We have to pay someone to package it, we have to buy the packaging, there are all of these variables that have to go into it. 

"But we have chosen to take that $1 and give it back to the food pantry."

As the process for developing the programs began, $1 Meals was the only program scheduled to launch this semester.

Process of Creating the Initiatives

During the spring 2019 semester, the Financial Wellness Collaborative and its subcommittees began looking into student affordability. Seelye said it was not about making things less expensive, but making programs more accessible and available for students.

“As we were doing our research on other institutions, somebody found something that was about food swipes and food anxiety, and how we address that,” Seelye said. 

Seelye and Tyson Dubay, director of food operations, began looking into which programs other universities utilize, and presented the research to a food insecurity subcommittee. During their research, they discovered the University of Kentucky, which also contracts with Aramark for campus dining, has a $1 meal program.

The subcommittee decided to implement a $1 meal program to launch in January, as a way to give themselves more time to work on some sort of meal swipe program.

As they brainstormed and researched other university programs, they decided to test a meal swipe voucher program halfway through the fall 2019 semester.

"(The meal swipe vouchers) was a really a small pilot program to gauge additional meal assistance through dining halls," Koch said. "Across the Enrollment and Student Services division, different staff members and various offices were given meal vouchers from Campus Dining that they could give to a student that expressed food insecurity issues, housing insecurity issues, financial wellness struggles, all of those types of things."

During the pilot program, staff members recorded basic information about the students, including class standing and whether they reside on or off campus. Campus Dining used the information to pinpoint where the need is. 

After a large amount students began to request a program, the committees and the Mary Ellen Brandell Volunteer Center worked together with Garay and other student leaders to quickly create the Swipe Bank to launch alongside $1 meals.

The programs are supplemental to the CMU Student Food Pantry, which also works to combat food insecurities.

Other CMU Food Insecurity Initiatives  

In fall 2018, the Volunteer Center launched the Student Food Pantry, which is open to all currently enrolled students.

The food pantry is open 5-7 p.m. Tuesdays, 3-5 p.m. Wednesdays and 12-2 p.m. Fridays. It is located beneath the Robinson Residential Restaurant in the North Campus Residential Community.

Students must fill out a form, much like the one for the Meal Swipe Bank, to register at the food pantry and be eligible to receive food. There are no financial need requirements.

"The food pantry is growing and establishing a presence on campus, but the meal swipe initiative and $1 meals will help to reach other students who are experiencing food insecurity but may not be utilizing the pantry," Koch said. "Having three programs working collectively together can have a larger impact."

Students who wish to help with these programs can find the available volunteer opportunities on the Food Pantry's Engage Central page.

"These new programs came to be because many students – and others with various relationships to CMU – used their voice and stood up for something that they believed in," Garay said. "The student voice is so powerful and has the power to bring about institutional change. 

"Collectively we have the power to ask and demand more from the university we attend. It is our right as students."