Rachel Sumekh ’12 truly got her start at UCLA. As an undergraduate in 2009, she and two classmates decided to address the food insecurity they saw around them, on and off campus. Soon, their efforts at feeding the hungry drew notice from the White House’s “Champions of Change” college campus program. Sumekh, who was recently listed in Forbes magazine’s list of top “30 Under 30” social entrepreneurs, is now CEO of Swipe Out Hunger, a not-for-profit organized into 27 student-run chapters nationwide. The program encourages college students to donate unused meal points to feed those in need. So far, the organization has served more than 1.3 million meals to the hungry.
How did you get the idea for Swipe Out Hunger?
The original idea came about because students have extra money on their meal cards at the end of each quarter. We asked students to go inside the dining hall and get food in a to-go box. We took those boxes and handed them out to people we saw around Westwood who were homeless. Eventually, we were collecting so many meals that we went a bit further. In one week, we collected 300 to-go meals. We would just set up a table outside different dining halls. Now, instead of students going and buying food to go, we can move those funds — say, 100 leftover meals — from student accounts into a big fund. Then our student groups, working with the universities, decide how to use those funds.
What does that look like at UCLA?
Students within Swipe Out Hunger participate primarily in three ways: buying meal vouchers for other students so they can get into the dining hall and have a warm, nutritious meal; buying food for the UCLA Food Closet, so any student can go there and grab a bite; and fundraising for volunteer events, like making bagged lunches to be donated off campus. This connects students to the greater issue of hunger and homelessness.
And what about at other colleges?
At Northwestern [for example], not only can students donate their extra meal points, but the local Swipe team created “cards.” These sit right by the checkout register at the campus convenience store, and instead of a student buying candy or gum, they can pick up a card for 50 cents — which enters them into a raffle — and all of the funds go to help fight local hunger. At UC Riverside, the money they collect from their Swipe drives goes to a local food bank, but a portion also goes to the R’Garden, a beautiful, organic garden on campus where students host regular plant and harvest days. All of the produce they reap goes to the on-campus food pantry to provide meals to their peers.
What was it like to visit the White House, especially as a college student?
It was mind-blowing. We were seniors in college. It was the week of finals. And with two weeks’ notice we got this email saying, “Congratulations, you’ve been chosen to come to the White House.” From there we ran around fundraising like crazy, because we didn’t want just us three founders to go; we wanted our 15-person team to come, too. So we fundraised a bunch of money and flew everyone out. When we saw President Obama, we realized we weren’t just a bunch of kids breaking the rules; this is something beyond UCLA, beyond Los Angeles and beyond ourselves.
After graduating, you took a different full-time job?
For the most part, the core group graduated in 2012, and we all got full-time jobs — but we spent every Sunday night on Skype calls talking about how we are going to grow this nonprofit. At the time, I was a social worker in Chicago in an AmeriCorps program called Avodah, helping homeless people. That experience was the greatest gift I ever had. In September 2013, I moved back to Los Angeles and launched our full-time office of Swipe Out Hunger and became our first staff person.
You grew up in Woodland Hills, and your background is Persian?
I am a very proud Persian Jew.
How much of that has influenced what you do?
I grew up in a community where no one ever went without. There is enough food at every dinner table for 50 people, even if there are only 10 of us there. But it’s not only food. It’s the ethos in which I see the role of community. The one place that I differ is that most Persian Jews stop with our community. I don’t think I ever developed that barrier.
Do you like to cook?
I love to cook. I cook a lot of Persian food. My favorite thing to cook is a Persian lentil stew called khoresh lapeh. The year that I was in Chicago, I lived in a co-op with 16 people — 16 Jews — and the only seasoning they seemed to know was salt. So I would call my grandma and ask her for recipes.
What are your plans for Swipe Out Hunger?
Come the day that universities start refunding the remaining money [on meal cards], we’re working on a larger, long-term scale to ensure that regardless of students donating their meal points, universities have programs set up that will make sure that every student has access to food. If a student is hungry, it doesn’t matter that they have a tutor — they are not going to be able to focus. Food is something that should never be inaccessible.