Supraja “Sippy” Sridhar is a vegetarian and, in her own words, a “picky eater.” So she had plenty of room on her meal plan during her freshman year at UAB when a friend asked if she could spare some money for lunch. “I found out she was working a separate job just to pay for food,” said Sridhar, a Hoover native who is now a senior chemistry student in the UAB College of Arts and Sciences. “I had no idea, and I wanted to do something to help.”
Sridhar paid for her friend’s meals for the rest of the year, and she started to explore the larger problem of food insecurity. She met with the case managers in UAB’s Office of Student Advocacy, Rights and Conduct, who assist students in need. “I found out there were resources available, but many students didn’t know about them,” Sridhar said. She launched a new campus organization, Donor to Diner, to spread the word about these services, and to add even more, including a food pantry. Working with UAB Dining and the university’s food service partner, Sodexo, Sridhar established the One Meal Initiative, which allows students to donate unused funds on their meal plans to fellow Blazers in need. In its first semester, fall 2015, the program received more than 250 meal donations. More than 500 meals have been donated so far in the spring 2016 semester. In addition to meal donations, Donor to Diner also has received financial contributions.
“Everyone knows what it’s like to feel hungry,” Sridhar said. “You can’t focus on anything else. For a student, that is a major distraction at least. It’s difficult to realize how much of a difference one meal can make.” She discussed her work with Donor to Diner at the inaugural TEDxUAB event on April 9, and is currently producing and directing a documentary about the organization and the issue of food insecurity.
After Donor to Diner was featured on a local newscast, Sridhar started to receive inquiries from students at universities across the country. “They’re interested in starting similar efforts on their own campuses,” she said. She found her own inspiration close to home. “My mom has always encouraged us to give to others,” Sridhar said. “She volunteers at Jessie’s Place” — a shelter for women and children in downtown Birmingham — “and other locations in the community. I had a great example in her.”
Any successful advocacy effort “starts with one person who decides to do something and tells others,” Sridhar added. “When people don’t know about about a problem, they can’t help change it.”