I’m Goldie Blumenstyk, a senior writer at The Chronicle covering innovation in and around academe. Here’s what I’m thinking about this week.

Food insecurity has soared nationwide. Student-hunger activists are adapting to the need.

Ever since I learned about Swipe Out Hunger, an organization that helps students donate meal-plan credits to classmates in need, I’ve been intrigued by its model, built on altruism and activism and some level of cooperation from colleges’ dining services.

In the last year, rates of hunger around the country have skyrocketed: Last month 11 percent of adults reported not having enough to eat. And with many campus dining programs disrupted by remote operations, Swipe Out Hunger’s mainstay program has taken a hit. After providing 270,000 dining-hall meals in fall 2019, its chapters were able to offer only half as many in fall 2020, despite greater need. Still, the organization and those chapters responded to the changing conditions with a couple of creative — and replicable — new approaches.

One effort trains students to help their peers navigate the complex processes of applying for food aid and other government assistance, which is especially timely now that Congress has temporarily expanded students’ access to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program as part of Covid-19 relief. The other takes a page from what a lot of us have been doing more of lately: turning to meal-delivery services. The Swipe Out Hunger chapter at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities is using Grubhub to get food to students in need.

The latter project began in November with a $2,000 donation from the university’s dining services and a standard large-order discount of 5 percent from Grubhub. Once the student government at Minnesota allocated an additional $15,000, the chapter negotiated for 20 percent off in February. “The second time we were much more insistent,” says Gigi Otten, the chapter’s co-president.

In the group’s regular program, meal-plan subscribers donate “swipes” of their cards, and students who sign up to receive meals don’t have to present any official “proof of need.” The same now goes for $20 Grubhub gift cards. Another $5,000 from the student government provided for $10 and $15 vouchers that can be used at local establishments run by people of color.

The demand for food is greater this year than last, Otten and her co-president, Trey Feuerhelm, told me. It’s not just more students in need. It’s also, he said, that “people who were already struggling need more.”

As much as I’ve been struck by Swipe Out Hunger’s approach, I’ve wondered about its sustainability, considering that it depends on the cooperation of colleges — and sometimes their dining-service contractors. So the public-assistance project I mentioned represents a noteworthy expansion in direction.

At the City University of New York, the project builds on the organization’s participation in a Student Navigator Network operated this summer by a nonprofit called Rise, training students nationally to advise their peers on how to apply for public assistance. A deliberately more local approach at CUNY trains students to help others understand the ins and outs of getting emergency food aid in New York City.

The Rise network showed that students prefer to get this kind of information from peers, which can save them the potentially stigmatizing experience of applying at a university office. Localizing it has the added benefit of offering a shared cultural connection. The navigators “speak the language of a CUNY student, both metaphorically and literally,” said Robb Friedlander, Swipe Out Hunger’s director of advocacy.

Since January, five navigators each spending 15 hours a week have helped 560 students sign up for assistance. They’ve also done class talks, videos, and other outreach across the CUNY system. The program, initially funded with $50,000 from the Robin Hood Foundation, has just been extended for another three months (through June) with another $50,000. Good timing there. With the largest-ever expansion of SNAP eligibility for college students just enacted — the Century Foundation says 3 million more college students are now eligible — Friedlander is expecting “a massive increase in the number of students applying.”

Historically, students have had a hard time qualifying for SNAP, although over the years, some states and colleges have made use of exemptions to open up access. Now the program includes students whose income would make them eligible for Federal Work-Study jobs, as well as those from families without the financial resources to contribute to the cost of college. (To learn more about how colleges can use this unique opportunity to help newly eligible students, check out this webinar today by the Center for Law and Social Policy.)

But the relief is only temporary. The expansion is slated to expire 30 days after the end of the Covid-19 public-health emergency.

Swipe Out Hunger doesn’t want to see that happen. “We will continue to be out there fighting to make this permanent,” Friedlander said. For decades, “students have had to jump through barrier after barrier” to receive SNAP benefits, he said. In the last year, when many students weren’t able to take advantage of meal-plan credits or campus food pantries, “it really brought home for a lot of people how important these programs are.”

This entrepreneur says his algorithm saves students from having to “perform poverty.”

Edquity is an unusual ed-tech company: It helps students obtain emergency assistance from colleges. Its tools for awarding that aid efficiently and humanely are an app and algorithm — with a research-informed design meant to get students the assistance they need without compromising their dignity.

Edquity’s systems aim to respect the scarcity of students’ time and avoid the stigma of “performing poverty,” its founder, David Helene, told me when we spoke for the latest episode of my new Innovation that Matters podcast series. And one key corporate value, he said, is “creating empathy in our language and really building that trust.”

I’ve written about Edquity in this newsletter before, noting that its very existence reflects colleges’ expanding role as agents of social policy. The Covid-19 crisis made that work all the more relevant, as colleges became the conduit for billions of dollars in federal emergency aid allocated to help students facing unemployment, hunger, and housing insecurity. That pain has also catalyzed Edquity’s growth. But Helene’s hope is that measures like the Cares Act and additional federal aid will be “a gateway to better, more enlightened, sustained policy in the years to come.”

Just a decade out of college himself, Helene wants Edquity to show how technology can solve problems, he said, rather than “automating inequality and widening racial-equity gaps.” For some, that might still be a hard sell. And Helene gets that. “If I were on the outside, I would have an inherent distrust of a company like ours, quite frankly,” he told me on the podcast. “There are many that represent that they’re doing good for others. And in fact, we find later on that the unintended consequences are vast.”

But Helene is studying up on financial trauma and the “historical paradigm of help-seeking in the U.S.” and has even put out a recommended reading list. The company also works closely with researchers like Sara Goldrick-Rab and Chloe McKenzie in its design and delivery, and recently published an analysis of its early work at Compton College. For Helene, that’s all important for people to understand “what we’re about.”

Listen to our full conversation here, or find it on your favorite podcast app. And if you missed the first episode, with Aimée Eubanks Davis, the founder of Braven, on helping first-gen students build professional networks and social capital, you can find that episode here.

Got a tip you’d like to share or a question you’d like me to answer? Let me know, at goldie@chronicle.com. If you have been forwarded this newsletter and would like to see past issues, find them here. To receive your own copy, free, register here. If you want to follow me on Twitter, @GoldieStandard is my handle.

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