By Regan Elyse Murray and Giulia Panter
As college students return to school this fall, many will face challenges accessing and affording the meals they need to fuel their academic careers. Over the last decade, studies have estimated rates of food insecurity–defined by the USDA as the long-term lack of regular access to nutritious foods–among college students as high as 20 to 50 percent as compared to 10 to 12 percent across the total United States population. The prevalence of food insecurity is greatest among African American students and those who are receiving multiple forms of financial aid or are struggling with homelessness.
The lack of access to regular, nutritious meals poses a key challenge to students’ health and academic performance. Food insecurity places children and adults at an increased risk for developing diet-related diseases including diabetes and hypertension, as well as conditions linked to stress such as depression and anxiety. A growing body of research also suggests that food insecurity leads to additional stress and fatigue among college students, negatively impacting their ability to concentrate in the classroom. A study conducted among community college students in 2015 found that food-insecure students were more likely than their peers to have a low GPA (below 2.5).
Student Eligibility for SNAP
Higher rates of food insecurity for college students have been attributed to the growing population of low-income students, insufficient financial aid, and the fact that many college students are not eligible for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). The largest federal nutrition assistance program, SNAP offers funds preloaded on an Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) card that eligible low-income individuals and families can use to purchase certain foods, including fruits and vegetables, dairy products, bread and cereals, meat, poultry, fish, and other pantry and convenience items, from authorized retailers.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, students had to meet a strict set of criteria to receive SNAP benefits. Only students ages 18 to 49 who worked more than twenty hours per week, studied less than half-time, or had childcare responsibilities could apply. These stringent eligibility requirements left out many other students who were also struggling with food insecurity. And many of the eligible students failed to take advantage of the program because they were unaware they qualified or unsure how to enroll in their state. A 2016 survey conducted by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) found that only 20 percent of food-insecure college students received SNAP benefits.
During the pandemic, as many students lost the work-study jobs they had relied on to support and feed themselves, Congress temporarily expanded SNAP eligibility for college students by passing the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2021 on December 27, 2020, which requires states to add two temporary exemptions to the eligibility list until the COVID-19 federal public health emergency is lifted. Students who are eligible for state or federally funded work-study programs now qualify for SNAP even if they do not participate. The amended requirements also allow college attendees whose families are expected to make no financial contribution to their education in the current academic year to begin to collect SNAP benefits.
For students in New York, this temporary alteration to federal policy builds on a permanent state policy change that had already been passed on October 1, 2020, allowing students in qualified career and technical education (CTE) programs to apply to SNAP.
Many colleges and universities are trying to raise awareness of the changes to eligibility requirements and encourage their students to enroll. At California State Long Beach, the “Beach CalFresh Outreach Team” guides students through the process of applying to CalFresh, the state’s SNAP program, by sharing information via webinars and social media. Applicants can also correspond with team members via chat boxes on the Beach CalFresh website and receive answers to their questions in real-time.
The City University of New York (CUNY) schools, in partnership with Swipe Out Hunger, a non-profit that aims to end hunger on college campuses, are similarly trying to increase awareness of SNAP benefits. Swipe Out Hunger has trained CUNY students to serve as “student food navigators” who work one-on-one with food-insecure peers to connect them with food benefit programs and community resources. Students who need help with their applications can also text “FOOD” to 855-230-6746 or email firstname.lastname@example.org for assistance.
Reducing food insecurity among college students, however, will require more than a temporary change to SNAP eligibility and enrollment assistance. Additional steps need to be taken at the federal, state, and institutional levels to increase students’ access to nutritious food.
Food Literacy Training
In 2017, when researchers at UCLA asked food-insecure students how the university could best support them, a majority asked for courses in food shopping and cooking. Students believed that greater knowledge of how to select and prepare food would help them to make more cost-effective purchases, spend less money eating out, and reduce costly food waste.
Reducing Meal Costs
Many students receiving financial aid find the money insufficient to cover all their costs, leaving many struggling to choose between paying rent and buying food. Universities should work to reduce the cost of on-campus meals for food-insecure students, helping to ensure that a cost-effective meal is always close at hand. Some colleges have moved in this direction by offering meal vouchers for free or subsidized meals that are paid for by the institution, food vendors, or student donations. Others use an app that alerts select students when leftover food from events or dining halls is being distributed.
Amplifying the Conversation
While many students surveyed by UCLA reported familiarity with the concept of food insecurity, far fewer could recall a time where they discussed the issue with their peers. Increasing the frequency and reach of on-campus conversations regarding food insecurity could help to reduce the stigma felt by many food-insecure students and give them greater confidence about seeking assistance.
Thinking Beyond Food Pantries
Although food pantries are the most widely-used resource among food-insecure students, pantries alone cannot meaningfully improve on-campus food security. They address immediate needs and do not resolve the root causes behind college students’ struggles to access and afford nutritious food. Given their popularity, however, pantries should be used as hubs to screen and enroll students in SNAP, publicize additional sources of free or low-cost food, and distribute other forms of food aid.
Collaborating Across States
Because SNAP programs and policies are implemented on the state level, public and private universities in the same state should work together to combat food insecurity among their students. The ongoing partnership among ten University of California campuses serves as a model for how institutions of higher education could collaborate to develop emergency and long-term support services for students, improve contracts with food vendors, engage in policy advocacy, and research new food security solutions within their states.
Congress would need to enact additional legislation to make the SNAP eligibility expansion permanent. That could be accomplished with the passage of the College Student Hunger Act, which was first introduced in 2019 by Democratic Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren.
General Information on SNAP
- Apply for SNAP
- SNAP Documentation Guide, NYC Department of Social Services
- SNAP Eligibility, USDA
- An Eligibility Prescreening Guide, Hunger Solutions New York
- NYC SNAP Incentive Programs Expand with $5.5 Million Grant, Hunter College NYC Food Policy Center
Additional Information For Students
- Expanded SNAP Eligibility for College Students, CUNY
- SNAP Expansion: Qualifying Career and Technical Education Programs of Study/Majors, CUNY
- SNAP Student Exemptions, Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance
- Verification of SNAP Allowable Student Exceptions, CUNY
- Michigan College Students Are Now Eligible for SNAP, Hunter College NYC Food Policy Center
- Food, Food Insecurity, and Mental Health, Hunter College NYC Food Policy Center