The views expressed in this article are the views of the author.
For hungry students at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, Retriever Essentials is more than just another on-campus program — it’s a lifeline. For three and a half years, this collection of on-campus organizations, student groups, academic departments and off-campus partners have been working to eliminate food insecurity at UMBC by offering food and toiletries donations, as well as connections to other on- and off-campus resources.
One of their newest programs, Save-A-Swipe, offers students the opportunity to donate five or ten meals from their meal plans to other food insecure students on campus. This may be a good start to leveling the playing field for low-income students, but is it enough?
The Save-A-Swipe program requires students to make a decision about whether to donate at the beginning of the semester, with this spring’s deadline being Feb. 14, before most students even know how many meals they are going to need for the semester. Once the Valentine’s Day deadline has passed, there is no option to reconfigure donations, despite the fact that food insecure students don’t begin receiving their meal swipes until March.
Furthermore, there is no option for students to donate more than 10 meals a semester, regardless of how many more they may wish to give.
The logistical difficulties inherent in the Save-A-Swipe program are unacceptable considering how many meal plan swipes expire unused on this campus. Students on weekly meal plans have to use up all their swipes or watch them be thrown away at the end of the week, and the inflexibility of UMBC’s meal periods forces students to spread out and delay their meals even when they have enough swipes left to pay for them.
As a commuter student, I often struggle to line up UMBC’s awkward meal periods with the few days I spend on campus, and end up with multiple wasted swipes at the end of the week. So why doesn’t UMBC give us the option to automatically donate unused meals at the end of every week?
Even if every single unused meal from every single meal plan was automatically donated to food insecure students, the exorbitant cost of on-campus meal plans means that UMBC would still be making a significant profit off every meal plan sold.
If each meal swipe is valued at $6.10, then even UMBC’s least profitable weekly meal plan (the Flexible 5) would give the school a profit of $357 for every plan sold. The school’s most profitable meal plan, the Flexible 14, would give them a profit of $1,122.10 per plan, while still donating any unused meals to students in need.
Throwing away unused meal swipes rather than giving students the food they paid for or donating it to charity is an act of excessive greed. Retriever Essentials and Save-A-Swipe may be a good start to UMBC’s attempts at helping students in need, but until this school is willing to overhaul its system in the name of ending food insecurity, nothing will truly change.