Meal plan updates challenge student-run food donation programs

A change to the Cardinal Meal Plan makes it harder for students to donate their meal swipes.

The USC Village Dining Hall. (Photo by Michael Chow)

Recent changes to the Cardinal Meal Plan, a mandatory expense for first-year residents in USC Housing, have challenged the ability of student-run organizations to donate meal swipes to the local community.

During the 2021-2022 school year, students began donating unused meal swipes, the equivalent of a meal, to aid organizations. Notably, SC Trojans Give Back, a student organization dedicated to combating food insecurity in Los Angeles, raised over $41,000 in excess food items. However, since the new meal plan limits students from purchasing food from campus cafes, such as the Ronald Tutor Campus Center, these organizations have struggled to continue serving the broader Los Angeles community.

“Right now, SC Trojans Give Back is kind of defunct,” said Yoav Gillath, the co-founder of the donation organization. “We can’t really operate with our old motto with the new meal plan… that’s the reality of the situation.”

Through the new Cardinal Meal Plan, students are granted unlimited meal swipes to dining halls but are limited to two meals a week from campus restaurants and cafes. Students were previously given 19 meal swipes weekly applicable toward any campus-affiliated dining center, allowing more donations of leftover swipes. Additionally, non-perishable items, such as “variety snack packs,” filled with chips and bottled water, were easily purchased and distributed at campus donation drives.

Now, such donations are limited as USC restricts meal swipes to select eateries. When asked if dining hall to-go boxes could reinvigorate the donation of meal swipes, Gillath said it is not a feasible donation option due to liability issues.

“When you’re working with prepackaged foods, liability falls on the big corporations that are producing these, whereas with fresh food that is prepared here, liability would fall on USC,” he said.

Annually, it is estimated that each college student generates around 142 pounds of food waste. That’s nearly 22 million pounds of unwanted food nationally. Yet, one in five L.A. County families are still dealing with food insecurity. Organizations such as SC Trojans Give Back aim to bridge the gap by donating leftovers.

“We live in this USC bubble,” said Kiana Ong, a frequent donor of SC Trojans Give Back. “So, it’s important that we recognize that and contribute as much as we can to our community.”

Annenberg Media contacted USC for comment, but did not receive a response.

Gillath and a group of student senators are now brainstorming new ways to continue serving the local community.

The Undergraduate Student Government is working to relaunch a previous initiative with SC Trojans Give Back to distribute sunscreen and menstrual products to the South Los Angeles community. They are hoping to work with local non-profit, Cathartic, and other organizations who are familiar with neighboring communities.

“[Cathartic] can handle all logistics and distribution for [sunscreen and menstrual products]” said Gillath. “But it’s an ongoing mission we’re working through with USG as well.”

Gillath is aware of the difficulty in reversing the new meal plan.

“There’s not much we can really control about it,” said Gillath. “We kind of just have to find new ways to try and give back to the community.”