Pomona Students Should Push for a Food Donation Program

A graphic of a student with five remaining meal swipes swiping into a dining hall. Behind the counter is a bin with a large pile of food, with the words "do not donate" at the bottom.
Audrey Jang – The Student Life

With the unused meals from our meal plans, we can feed tens of thousands of homeless people each month.

I’ve spent most of my life living in Latin America, where millions of people die due to malnutrition and starvation every year. As a child, I was forced to finish every single last grain of rice on my plate every meal. My parents constantly reminded me that around the corner from where we lived, children were dying of hunger and that ergo, I better finish my damn rice. I still finish my rice every meal but now, living in the Claremont bubble, those starving children seem much further away and are much less present in my mind. This bothers me. I’m bothered that no one is demanding that I constantly acknowledge how fortunate I am to always know where my next meal is coming from. In fact, I am so bothered that I came up with a plan that would allow us to feed tens of thousands of homeless people each month by simply donating our unused meals.

However, I soon realized that the plan would require the backing of the Pomona College administration, and they have been less than helpful in implementing it.

The idea is this: every week, many students have left over meal swipes. These meal swipes are essentially equivalent to dollars from your meal plan, each one worth about $15 to be precise. On a weekly basis, students who fail to use all of their meals are losing $30 to $40. This ‘packouts program’ seeks to empower students by giving us greater control over these lost resources and allowing us to use them to help those in greatest need in our surrounding community. The program exchanges students’ unused meal swipes for packouts of uncooked staple foods and water bottles and then donates those packouts to homeless shelters and food banks in the Greater Los Angeles Area.

I did a test run of this program for three weeks last semester to gauge just how much food could actually be donated through it. I went around on campus and through Facebook asking students to donate meal swipes that they weren’t going to use and then made a packout order using those meal swipes. During the first week, people donated about thirty meal swipes; during the second, around fifty; and during the third over 400 meal swipes were donated. The college values the packouts they give us at five dollars each, which means that during that third week alone over $2,000 worth of food could have been donated to a nearby homeless shelter or food bank.

Unfortunately, this didn’t happen. The first couple of weeks, I did manage to obtain packouts for the thirty to fifty meals that were donated each week and with great help from the Hunger and Homeless Initiative at the Draper Center, delivered them to a nearby homeless shelter. However, I knew that the packouts service offered by the dining halls wasn’t meant for this. So I was operating under the radar, claiming my packout orders were for events I was hosting or weekend trips with several friends. The third week, needless to say, the college wasn’t going to buy that my friends and I needed over 400 packouts for our weekend trip, so that week I just made a packout order for 50 meal swipes or so from the ones offered and the rest went unused. At this point, I realized that this program had such great potential that I could no longer continue working under the radar, so I began to reach out to Pomona administration to institutionalize my program.

I met with Margie McKenna, director of campus services, Laura Condino, assistant director of finance administration, and Patricia Weaver, general manager of dining hall services. I spent over an hour explaining to them why Pomona needed to support a project that would allow students to bring food to tens of thousands of homeless people each month. Sadly, I was met with skepticism and resistance to a program that couldn’t be more beneficial to the college itself, students, and most importantly those in need of food.

I am frustrated with the administration for not only failing to understand the urgency of this project but also for showing a reluctance to implement it. It is frustrating and belittling to be told at the end of an over one-hour meeting that the college is going to support and go forward with our program and then have most of the individuals present at that meeting fail to respond to any of my multiple follow-up emails. It is frustrating to think that without this article there would be no sense of accountability or transparency regarding our administration’s decisions on such an important issue. More than anything, it is frustrating to spend over a semester trying to convince the administration to do something for which no convincing ought to be needed at all: helping those less fortunate than us.

The administration is hesitant to let you donate your own meal swipes to feed the homeless. How twisted is that? They have pushed back with logistical difficulties as if these were sufficient reasons to shy away from an initiative that would bring food to thousands of people. These difficulties are not reasons to shy away from this program; if anything, they’re reasons to lean into it with even greater passion, even greater commitment. They are simply obstacles to overcome.

It is painful to me to think that an entire semester has gone by and this program has not yet been institutionalized. Each month, we could have brought meals to thousands of people. Each month, thousands of people went to sleep with an empty stomach. We could have prevented that. This is particularly painful when I know that the only real obstacle in our way is institutional greed, because Pomona would lose money in paying for the extra packouts this program requires instead of being able to keep the profits from students not fully using their meal plans. Whether or not this occurs, however, should be up to us, the students. The packouts program is designed as an opt-in program purposefully so that students who wish to allocate their meal swipes towards the homeless can make a conscious decision to do so each week.

This program can give us more control over our meals and allow us to take affirmative action each week to help those less fortunate. This program is a demand for transparency and empowerment. It is an invitation for us to not only acknowledge our privilege but to act on it. I am asking for your help to demand that Pomona institutionalize this program before more people suffer from hunger.

Antonio Leon de la Barra PO ’18 is an international student majoring in Physics.

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