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College students are donating leftover meal swipes to help food-insecure classmates

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LOS ANGELES (Circa) -- Juan Cameros spent a few months last year eating only one meal a day. The Los Angeles, California, college student wasn't trying some new diet—he simply couldn't afford to eat multiple times a day.

"It's embarrassing, but yeah, through certain periods of my life, I was homeless, living in my car," said Cameros, 39.

I was eating one time a day.
Juan Cameros, food-insecure college student

Cameros, a student at the University of Southern California, is what people describe as food-insecure, or lacking access to three nourishing meals a day. Cameros says his arthritis kept him from working a fulltime job, so he relied on Social Security benefits for a few months, but it wasn't enough.

"Since I take my [painkillers] everyday, I'm supposed to eat before I take my medicine. But since I was eating one time a day, I tried to eat probably like at three or five. I tried to go back to my desk, work hours and hours to kind of forget that I needed to eat. And I tried to get as tired as i could, so I could go back to my car and go to sleep," said Cameros.

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Juan Cameros says he once went 24 hours without eating because he only had a few cents in his bank account and had to buy supplies for his architecture class. He's since switch majors to something "more affordable."

We've been called the Robin Hood of meal plans.
Rachel Sumekh, CEO and founder of Swipe Out Hunger

About 22% of four-year college students report having some degree of food insecurity, according to the National Student Campaign Against Hunger and Homelessness. So when nonprofits like Swipe Out Hunger come around, it's a godsend.

"We've been called the Robin Hood of meal plans," said Rachel Sumekh, CEO and founder of Swipe Out Hunger. "[We] make sure that students who need this resource, which is abundant, are able to access it."

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Cameros says he is no longer food-insecure. He recently moved into a small apartment with his wife. He works a part-time job at a school while he finishes his studies.

Swipe Out Hunger lets students donate unused meal plan dollars to a fund that low-income students can access. Since 2009, they've donated 1.4 million meals. Rachel Sumekh says she started the organization while she was a student at UCLA because she was frustrated about her excess meal plan dollars going to waste.

"We literally asked people to go into dining halls, buy food to go, and we would go and hand these meals out to people," said Sumekh. "Eventually, when the school was not very happy with this. They were concerned about liability and what's going on, we decided to ask for their partnership."

Now the program is at 37 universities and counting, keeping more students studying instead of worrying about their next meal, Sumekh hopes.

"Students [would] say [to us], 'I would go to class, and half the time, I'd be focused, and the other half of the time, I'd be like, 'Can people hear my stomach grumbling?''"

Some universities are even opening up food pantries on campus to help those in need. Now, thanks to helping hands, a few free meals and new job, Cameros says he's in a much better place.

"I can't say I'm rich, but I'm happy now. And I feel safe, you know?"

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