Opinion | Op-eds

Converting unused meal swipes can help homeless

  • Yue Ben / Senior Staff Photographer
    OPEN DOORS | Every night, over 53,000 homeless New Yorkers, including 23,000 children, sleep in municipal shelters all around New York City.

Over winter break, I spent an hour on a bench in Boston’s North Station. The air swirling in from the platforms bit at my exposed hands and face. It was during the “Polar Vortex,” and my parka felt paper-thin, the bench unnecessarily hard. To kill time, I opened my phone and looked at an article on my News Feed, and discovered that Amtrak police were systematically arresting homeless New Yorkers in Penn Station. The hundreds who had flocked to the station to stay warm were physically assaulted by officers and threatened with arrest or ejection into the freezing temperatures.

I had a coffee. I had a coat. I had the promise of brunch with my friend, a smartphone, and a train ticket home. All this meant that, despite our shared discomfort, my experience on the train station bench was still worlds away from the situation my fellow New Yorkers now faced. But I realized that the indignation I felt as I read that article was something I hadn’t felt in a long time, since before my familiarity with the presence of New York City’s homeless population had made me numb to their plight. However superficial the connection, that moment in North Station made homelessness real for me again.  

For those of us raised outside of the city, New York has a few social codes: Walk fast, avoid eye contact in elevators, and, most importantly, ignore the existence of homeless men and women. At first I was skittish, moving to the other edge of the sidewalk or delivering long and detailed explanations for why I couldn’t part with the five in my pocket. But it disturbs me now how easily these people became background noise, their calls for change or divine salvation as stereotypical and unremarkable as taxicab horns or the thunder of the subway. They become the hallmarks of “classic” New York, unchanging and unchangeable.

But the city is changing—for the worse. This past year has seen a media frenzy over the rising rates of homelessness in New York. The New York Times reported that there are more than 64,000 homeless men, women, and children in our city, a level unseen since the Great Depression. Andrea Elliot, reporter for the New York Times Magazine, gave a face to these numbers in “The Invisible Child,” a five-part series on Dasani, a 12-year-old girl living in a shelter with her drug-addicted parents and seven siblings. The freezing temperatures that have characterized this winter in particular have raised citizens’ concern for those out on the streets.

Homelessness has taken hold in the political and popular consciousness. Yet despite the growing movement, the number of homeless New Yorkers we pass, even in the few blocks from campus to Duane Reade, reminds us that the goal of eradicating homelessness seems insurmountable. It isn’t apathy; very few of us are uncaring as to what’s going on outside. We take courses on class, we check our privilege, we volunteer. We do our best. But making a tangible impact on homelessness requires a kind of creativity and effort few of us know how to employ.

 But what if it was easy? What if instead of dollars or hours, we were giving something that few people even notice when it goes missing? Over the past decade, universities across the country have implemented meal swipe donation programs that make feeding our neighbors as easy as clicking a button. These programs convert students’ unused dining hall swipes into cash, which is then directly donated to community shelters.

Yale’s Hunger and Homelessness Action Project is an excellent example of a low-key, high-impact drive that involves about 50 percent of the student population. For 30 years, the project has held a “YHHAP Fast” once each semester, in which students volunteer ahead of time to sacrifice a swipe on a predetermined day—generally a Friday, when many students eat out—by clicking a button on Yale’s version of SSOL. On that day, the dining hall makes a correspondingly smaller amount of food, and the unspent equivalent of the swipes is donated to charities for the homeless. I spoke to Fast Director Emma Goldberg, who said this one day of foregone meal swipes typically results in a donation of $13,000 to 17,000 to provide for those in need.

 Solving the problem of homelessness will involve long-term changes in wealth allocation, infrastructure, and policy that far exceed our current capabilities as students. A fast, for sure, is far from a solution or a perfect fundraising effort. But it is simple—and for many, a painless change. First-years who are on a required meal plan—with 15 or 19 meals a week—are especially unlikely to notice the difference. If we can ease the burden of those around us, even slightly, with something as simple as a meal swipe, why wait?

The author is a Columbia College first-year with a prospective major in political science. 

To respond to this op-ed, or to submit an op-ed, contact opinion@columbiaspectator.com.

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yes posted on

great article and great suggestion. we should implement this at columbia.

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Tom O'Keefe posted on

Great article. Congratulations

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Anonymous posted on

I love the sentiment but this money wouldn't come out of nowhere. I'm sure Columbia factors in this excess in their budget. In effect, students aren't expected to use all their meals and for Columbia that's pure profit. To ask them to donate money from "unused" swipes would be asking Columbia to donate money from it's own pockets, something they are unlikely to do with out much of a fight.

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Anonymous posted on

Instead of just assuming this isn't going to work, isn't it better to at least try to make a difference? If you can help even one person have a better life with no cost to anyone else that's all that really matters in the end

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Anonymous posted on

It's exactly as Anon says. Freshman have already paid for the plan, meaning they've paid upfront for all those meal swipes. The only way to "truly" donate swipes is for students to swipe the homeless people into dining halls, and that's not exactly ok with everyone. On the other hand, donating dining dollars or flex can definitely help pay to feed the homeless (but people are more attached to those).

If, for example, Yale has similar plan structures as Columbia (pay upfront for non-refundable meal swipes), then perhaps the pressure can force Columbia to donate some money out of their revenue from Dining. But then again, this jeopardizes our dining halls. Would students be willing to negatively impact their Columbia dining experience to donate to the homelessness?

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rationalperson posted on

I don't think it works like that... the dining halls run based on the assumption that some percentage of meal swipes will not be spent. The money is still coming from somewhere.

It's a good effort though and there might be something viable here.

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rationalperson posted on

Whoops, did not realize that someone else had already made this exact point.

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Anonymous posted on

Let's just swipe in homeless people.

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cc16 posted on

this is a great idea. well written article

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