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N.Y.U. students can donate their unused swipes to hungry classmates via Share Meals. Credit Yana Paskova for The New York Times

By Laura Pappano, for the New York Times

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To Asia Suarez, a computer science major, the math hit like an error message: With less than three weeks left in the spring term, she would need to eat seven meals a day to use up the remaining 131 swipes on her food plan at New York University. A soccer player who works out furiously and eats “a lot,” Ms. Suarez still found that 300 meals a semester (for $2,541) were too many.

So she shared. One evening, Ms. Suarez swiped in four guests at Hayden, a dining hall famous for its homemade cookies. The hungry guests came via Share Meals, a campus website matching students needing food with those who have food. The 80-meal plan in Adam El-Sayigh’s financial aid package had run out weeks before. He didn’t have money for more. Happily, he hit the hot food stations first, filling a to-go container with two cheese sandwiches on toasted wheat and a tray with roast beef, chicken cacciatore and bow-tie pasta with vodka sauce. He then ordered a burger.

Students have always offered one another casual swipes, and even sold them. (Advertised on Facebook: 50 swipes at Western Carolina University for $50; “willing to swipe in for $5” at the University of California, Davis.) But frugality born of college debt and growing attention to food insecurity — a U.S.D.A. term for limited access to food — are spurring new thinking about how to spread the bounty. Activists in the food justice movement and college officials are creating tools and programs to help students donate meal swipes, while free food pantries are proliferating even on wealthy campuses.

Jon Chin, an N.Y.U. graduate student who created Share Meals in 2013, surveyed 523 students at the end of last year and found 45,399 swipes had gone unused, about a third of the meals that had been paid for.

Some of the disparity is driven by dining policies. Many colleges require dorm residents to buy meal plans. But it’s hard to predict at the start of the term what you’ll use. Busy schedules and the desire to eat out mean missed dining hall meals. And the rules smart: Swipes may expire at the end of the term, or even each week. You might have to pull out cash for certain items, like a side of fries. But perhaps the biggest frustration is the wasted money that unused swipes represent.

Last August, when the University of Tennessee in Knoxville announced that commuters would have to buy a “Flex Plan” for $300 (on-campus freshmen must get a regular meal plan), students formed the Coalition Against Mandatory Meal Plans and drafted a petition. (The rule remains, but students can now get a refund for unused “Flex Plan” dollars.) In the past year, students at Drexel, Miami University of Ohio, Keene State College, the University of Southern Mississippi and the University of Central Florida have delivered petitions objecting to the cost of plans, dining hours and food quality.

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