When UAB student Supraja “Sippy” Sridhar shared her student meal plan with some friends, she was just doing her part to help. She soon realized it was a much bigger issue.
“l have a large meal plan, and had a lot of leftovers on it,” she said. “My friend was having problems paying for her food, so for the rest of the year, I paid for meals for my friends who were having a hard time.”
Sridhar knew if she had friends who needed food, there were probably many others on campus facing the same problem. Food insecurity is an unknown issue on many college campuses. It’s estimated to affect between 5 and 25 percent of students at some point during their college careers, but the exact number is not known since college students are often omitted from poverty statistics.
Sridhar, a Hoover resident who went to Berry Middle School and the Jefferson County International Baccalaureate school, helped start the Donor to Diner program. The service-oriented organization at UAB seeks to provide easy access to food and other commodities to economically disadvantaged students who do not have access to food on a regular basis. The organization has partnered with UAB’s administration, campus restaurants and the Office of Student Advocacy, Rights & Conduct to not only help reduce food insecurity on campus, but also promote awareness of the issue.
Sridhar came across case managers at UAB who had resources to help, but many students didn’t know the service was available, she said.
“When I started Donor to Diner, the purpose was to increase awareness,” she said. “This situation is not unique to UAB. It’s a problem many campuses face across the nation.”
Sridhar said many of these students work a job but still can’t afford to put food on the table. Some are even temporarily homeless.
“They go to school and work, but after paying for school, they couldn’t afford rent,” she said. “I wanted not only to increase awareness to those who want to make a difference and study and get an education, but to make it a little bit easier on their part.”
Sridhar’s idea was to do a meal transfer or exchange. That’s when the One Meal Initiative was formed. The initiative would be anonymous and discreet, so those who donated wouldn’t know who would receive the meal.
“We initiated it in the fall of 2015,” Sridhar said. “The program would allow students to either donate a meal from their meal plan, or $10 for a meal voucher. Recipients could then come in and enjoy a meal in the dining hall.
The first event had over 250 meal donations worth $2,500. Sridhar said the meal vouchers flew off the shelves.
“We campaigned this very hard by handing out fliers, talking to students, putting the information in campus newsletters and hanging up information in the dorms,” Sridhar said. “We wanted to make sure everyone knew this program existed, not only to get people to donate, but also so students would know the resources were available.”
Since its beginning, the program has served over 350 students at UAB. The Office of Student Conduct, Rights and Advocacy has also seen a significant increase in usage. They have a pantry that provides students with food, as well as school supplies and personal care items.
Due to the success of the first meal voucher donation event, Sridhar is arranging another one this semester. She hopes to incorporate online donations as well, and also work with UAB Campus Recreation to organize a food drive to help replenish the food pantry after the holidays.
Sridhar plans to continue helping students in need and raising awareness of the issue. She is co-producing and directing a short documentary to spread the word about food insecurity, not only at UAB, but in the community as well.
“A lot of people didn’t know this was a problem and wanted to help,” she said. “The first thing to do is let people know the problem exists. Students are the future of this country, and it’s a shame to see someone who cares and is motivated for education lack such a basic essential.”
Sridhar said food has always been big in her household. Her family has donated food, helped cook in food kitchens and served the homeless, so creating this program was an easy decision for her.
“This isn’t the first time I had helped people in need, but I thought it was something no one had done, and it needed some attention,” she said. “UAB has the resources, and it’s a matter of connecting people to those resources. We have this platform and want to use it.”