By Grace Kirkpatrick, IMPACT Blogger
At Penn, thanks to the Netter Center, students have the opportunity to take Academically Based Community Service (ABCS) courses. These classes are designed to connect Penn students and faculty to educational, religious, and other community organizations within West Philadelphia. Together, undergraduates and local leaders work to resolve current social issues, in areas ranging from health to the environment.
It was in this setting that sophomores Liza Lansing and Jessie Abrams realized the true extent of food insecurity in West Philadelphia.
This past fall, they both took Dr. Ira Harkavy’s Academically Based Community Service Class called Faculty-Student Collaborative Action Seminar in Urban University-Community Relations: Penn and West Philadelphia as a Case Study in Progress. In this course, students identified a problem at Penn or in West Philadelphia and then they developed an in-depth solution to this issue.
For Lansing and Abrams, they were struck by the lack of food resources in the area. Lansing said, “During one of our classes we went on a trolley tour of West Philadelphia with Glenn Bryan and we saw firsthand how West Philadelphia is a food desert. We were shocked after seeing streets lined with hair salons and dollar stores.”
After this tour, Lansing and Abrams dedicated the rest of the semester to coming up with ways to combat food insecurity.
Before coming to Penn, they had heard about Swipes, a program run at different college campuses across the country that allows students to donate excess meal swipes to nonprofits fighting hunger in their area. As they ended their freshman year with many leftover meal swipes, they recalled this program and began to wonder how they could make it a reality at Penn. Lansing noted, “While we realized there are a significant number of students who use up all of their meal swipes, we also knew a ton of people were in similar situations as us and were frustrated by the amount of money they had wasted.”
As sophomores in Dr. Harkavy’s course, however, they received the guidance that they needed to adapt the Swipes model and apply it to Penn’s campus. He stressed with them the importance of creating and maintaining a strong relationship with Penn’s dining company, Bon Apetit. They also connected with Philabundance, a local nonprofit whose mission is to help the almost one million people in Delaware County who face hunger daily.
Support also came to Lansing and Abrams from other Swipes chapters across the country, specifically the founders at UCLA and Northwestern University. Lansing spoke about the advice that they received, “They told us… (that) the most difficult part of our work would be getting our foot in the door, and once we got our first yes we could then prove to them that our Swipes program has a lot of potential, and would benefit the University as well.”
It was after all of their planning and preparation of first semester that I first met Abrams and Lansing.
I received an email early on this semester with an application for various committee positions and immediately filled it out. Swipe Out Hunger Penn was exactly the type of mission that I was hoping to become involved in at Penn.
After a semester of trying to get into Wharton clubs and signing up for a plethora of listservs, I knew that I had to focus on my true interests– social policy and food insecurity.
Like Lansing and Abrams, I had noticed how pervasive food insecurity is within the greater Philadelphia area. I find the amount of waste that we generate at Penn to be unsettling in contrast to this pressing need.
Swipe Out Hunger just made sense to me. It wasn’t asking students to dig into their wallets or block off hours in their G-cal. It was asking for them to give what they weren’t going to use, a couple of prepaid meal swipes that had been replaced by GrubHub orders or Chipotle runs.
As evidenced by the first donation day held on March 25, the Swipes model made sense to the Penn community too. Our initial goal for this pilot day was 500 meal swipes. Three hours in, we had met this number and by the end of the day we reached a total of 900 meal swipes donated. Each meal swipe counts toward a monetary donation that will be made to Philabundance after our second donation day on April 28.
As I watched Lansing and Abrams encourage students to donate, I realized that they weren’t afraid of being told no. Through their experience in their ABCS class, they had already been brought outside of their comfort zone. And now they could challenge others to look beyond the Penn bubble with them.