In 2009, Rachel Sumekh popped up a table outside the dining hall at UCLA with a makeshift posterboard sign encouraging her peers to donate their extra meals to someone in need. The eager undergraduate and her friends saw an opportunity to revolutionize what they saw as a wasteful food system. One in seven college students is considered food-insecure, while their peers lose millions of extra meal points because they don't use the entirety of their predetermined plan. Using one problem to address the other, Sumekh co-founded Swipe Out Hunger, which reallocates unredeemed meals to students in need.
While the solution seemed intuitive enough, university bureaucrats initially found it hard to swallow. Sumekh first gave students to-go boxes to collect extra food. But she was met with resistance. She recalls that a dining director actually smashed the boxes of collected food and issued them a warning: "Get this program the hell off my campus."
Sumekh refers to the incident as a point of praxis. "It became so clear to me in that moment that we had to switch from being angsty about how we pursued our work and think about it through the lens of partnership." After donating more than 300,000 meals to the hungry as a student organization, Swipe Out Hunger became a bona fide nonprofit and Sumekh signed on as executive director. Under her watch, the organization has grown up, serving more than 1.3 million meals to date.
At her desk at program headquarters, perched upon the glittering high-rise of downtown's Gas Company Tower, the Woodland Hills native recounts her manifesto: "We need universities to view food on campus differently, as a human right. It's actually about equity."
At the helm of Swipe Out Hunger, Sumekh has leaned into the adversity of going against the grain. She has expanded the student-run chapter program to 26 universities across the nation and counting. Last year, the University of California system commissioned Swipes for all nine campuses and Sumekh helped introduce a bill to the California State Assembly, which could put Swipes in the dining hall of every college in the state.
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Swipe Out Hunger's success is fueled by Sumekh's self-reflection and brave experimentation. Leaving no life hack untested, she says she routinely questions how she can be a more mindful leader. "With each person I talk to, I get to have another glimpse into the world from their understanding," she says. She describes her leadership style as "relationship-based."
Despite myriad accolades, including being named a "Champion of Change" by President Obama and recognition on this year's Forbes 30 Under 30 List for social entrepreneurs, Sumekh is notably down-to-earth. She demystifies her success at every turn in order to encourage others, whether she's onstage at a public speaking gig or authoring a dispatch on social media. "Everyone is a leader, and I'm committed to having people realize that," she says.
To understand the 25-year-old's burning drive for sustainable systemic overhaul, one can look to the mantra emblazoned on her keychain: "Fucking shit up, thoughtfully."