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University of New Hampshire student starts virtual food bank program, 'Swipe It Forward'

Alana Davidson, a senior at UNH, created a program using finger scanning and swipe-card technology to distribute donated credits to students who are privately struggling to pay for meals.

Corinne Lestch
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Corinne Lestch Education staff reporter - EdScoop, FedScoop and StateScoop

Corinne Lestch is a staff reporter covering education for EdScoop and its affiliate public sector technology news websites, FedScoop and StateScoop...

Alana Davidson, a senior at the University of New Hampshire, explaining her research on food insecurity at colleges. (Courtesy Alana Davidson)

A senior at the University of New Hampshire is changing how students get food on campus, one meal-card swipe at a time.

Alana Davidson, who is studying nutrition and dietetics, created the Swipe It Forward program, a virtual food bank which allows anyone — faculty, staff, parents and students — to donate swipes on the dining hall meal plan for students who may not have enough money to buy food.

The program takes advantage of an existing finger scanning and student ID card-swipe system that connects to a campus-wide platform developed by Blackboard.

"It’s basically using our online dining services program that we already have, and collecting swipes," Davidson said in an interview with EdScoop. "Dining services puts the [donated] swipes directly onto the students' ID cards, so there’s no paperwork to fill out."

David May, associate vice president of business affairs at UNH, told EdScoop that the school uses the content management system Blackboard for students to facilitate access to the dining halls on campus. Students use finger scanning technology to enter the halls and go through a turnstile.

Students and faculty staff who participate in the university's meal swipe plans can donate up to 15 meals per year, by filling out a form at UNH's ID Office, according to May. Those on unlimited meal plans aren't eligible to donate meal swipes, but anyone can make a cash donation using a UNH web site designed to accept donations, according to May.

"Once a student has come forward or has been referred," to the Swipe It Forward program, they can "come into our ID office, get their finger scanned and we'll just put meals on their account and they will go through a turnstile like everyone else," May said. "We didn't want to single anyone out who used the program to have a special card or coupon."

The program was developed to work within Blackboard's software, according to May. "No features needed to be added or developed," he said.

(Courtesy Alana Davidson)

The school adopted the finger scanning technology a few years ago, May said, in part to move the school's roughly 15,000 students more efficiently through its dining halls.

"One of the reasons we use that is we have an unlimited meal plan that we sell, and the only way to really control it is to have that kind of access," he said. "The meal system tracks balances in real time and does not allow students to use more meals than they have purchased," May said.

Swipe It Forward, which launched at the end of the fall semester, was the culmination of two years of work and research. When Davidson worked on a college health project in 2014, she found in her research that the U.S. Department of Agriculture collects household-level data on food insecurity, but does not have statistics specifically on college students.

"We don't know nationally how many students are facing these issues, so I came back to campus and did a survey and sent it out to a general nutrition class," Davidson, 21, said.

She found that 12 percent of students are "food insecure," whereas 10 percent of households in the state fall into that category.

Intrigued by these findings, Davidson received approval to do a more intensive survey among students, asking them what type of meal plan they have and what their spending priorities are. She received about 1,000 responses and discovered that 25 percent of students were food insecure, "which meant they're going hungry and they're really struggling."

"It was shocking to me," Davidson said. "I couldn't just sit on this number."

She reached out to the dean of students and the provost, and she said they were both supportive of her studies and finding a solution. After presenting her findings to top school and state officials, a task force was created on campus. That included the dean of students, the vice president of business services, a nutrition faculty member, the director of a local food pantry, school dining services and Davidson.

Davidson took the Swipe It Forward idea to the task force, and months later it turned into a concrete solution.

Dining services "works with students to give them a certain number of free meals in the dining hall and put them directly on their student IDs so there's no stigma, and no one knows how students are obtaining those swipes," she said.

"With the cost of housing, tuition and books, food isn’t as much of a priority," Davidson added. "It's the first thing that gets cut if you need to pay rent or tuition. You can go a day without eating, but you can't really go a day without those other things."

Now, the focus is on getting the word out to students. Davidson said they are bringing attention to the program through social media, and she hopes to create a comprehensive website about what the program entails and why food insecurity is a major issue on college campuses.

She said she is working with university health services, counseling services and academic advisors to screen for students who may benefit from the program.

"Really what we’re trying to do is raise awareness and tell students, 'If you are struggling, we’re here to help you, and there are resources available,'" she said. "We definitely don’t want students to be going hungry. UNH is one step closer to being a hunger-free campus and it’s very exciting to see."

Reach the reporter at corinne.lestch@edscoop.com and follow her on Twitter @clestch and @edscoop_news.

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