California colleges rush to get more students on food assistance before pandemic rule ends
Students, add this to the to-do list between now and finals week: Apply for federal food assistance before the fast-approaching end of a rule that allows more folks to qualify.
Starting June 10, students whose families could not contribute a dollar to their education or who are approved for federal or state work-study programs will no longer be automatically eligible for CalFresh, the program formerly known as food stamps. Instead, students will have to seek those benefits through a stricter set of eligibility rules that limit how many low-income people enrolled in college can receive food aid.The imminent deadline — the result of a federal health order sunsetting — is putting pressure on California campus officials, both public and private, and state agencies to inform students these benefits are ending soon.
Everyone — advocates, researchers, college social service coordinators and county officials — says the time is now for students to apply. Seeking the aid before the rules tighten again could buy a previously ineligible student as much as a year of time on food assistance, they say. A qualifying student could get up to $281 a month to pay for groceries.Beyond a matter of basic necessity, ensuring students aren’t hungry has clear academic benefits, including higher college graduation rates, studies have shown.
“There is a scramble right now,” said Brandi Simonaro of CalState Chico’s Center for Healthy Communities, which holds a state contract to help students apply for food assistance on 48 mostly public college campuses statewide.
Part of the challenge, she said, is misinformation among campus officials about CalFresh’s complex and changing eligibility rules; she fears the confusion will discourage students from applying.
Marcia Garcia guides students through the CalFresh application process at UC Berkeley and sees firsthand how pressed for time they are, especially for those with jobs or children.
“I think there’s always this concern, right, that not everyone is going to learn about these resources in time,” she said.
The rush to get the word out underscores advocates’ long-held frustration with the federal government, which they say blocks many students from vital food aid — a policy holdover from the 1970s when most college students in the U.S. were thought to be well-off.
Today, far more students from low-income families attend college — and need food assistance that most don’t get. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, an estimated 127,000 California college students received CalFresh, even though anywhere from 416,471 to 689,233 students were likely eligible, according to a 2020 state report that relied on 2018-2019 data. In the same year, according to the California Student Aid Commission, 1 in 3 students reported experiencing food insecurity in any given month.
The low participation rate has made college students a group of particular focus for policymakers and anti-hunger advocates in California, which already struggles to deliver food aid to all who qualify. Only about 70% of Californians who are eligible for food stamps receive them, compared to about 82% for the rest of the nation.
There’s evidence the expanded eligibility rules led to more college students receiving CalFresh. In December 2020, a month before the temporary new rules kicked in, nearly 120,000 college students in California were receiving CalFresh. By September 2021, that number grew to over 140,000, according to the California Department of Social Services, citing its most recent data in an email to CalMatters.
The department said it lacks the data to know how many students will lose CalFresh benefits once the health emergency ends.
The expanded eligibility triggered a huge jump in student applications. On the 48 campuses where the Center for Healthy Communities works, the number of students applying for food aid jumped from 2,963 in late summer of 2020 to 12,051 a year later and just over 16,000 in late summer 2022.
But because of complex eligibility rules, students often have their food aid applications denied by county welfare departments, which administer CalFresh on behalf of the state. For example, Simonaro said the state told the center only about half the applications it has helped students submit are approved.
UPDATED: Please read and follow our commenting policy: