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State Sen. Bill Dodd introduces bill to make CalFresh paperwork easier for college students facing food insecurity

Bill Dodd's bill aims to streamline the application process for CalFresh, the state's food stamp program. 'Students shouldn't be forced to make the heartbreaking choice between getting an education and eating,' the Napa Democrat said.|

College students navigate through plenty of paperwork, between taking exams, writing academic papers, filling out financial aid forms and applying for scholarships. But for students seeking food benefits, the paperwork may soon be a tad easier.

State Sen. Bill Dodd, D-Napa, introduced a bill on Monday that aims to streamline the application process for CalFresh, the state’s food stamp program.

While food insecurity is a huge issue among college students across the state, there are barriers for college students to obtain CalFresh benefits - including differences in county-by-county paperwork. Dodd’s bill aims to create a simpler, universal form for California students to use.

“Students shouldn’t be forced to make the heartbreaking choice between getting an education and eating,” Dodd said in a release. “Hunger is a serious problem on college campuses across the state, and my bill takes an important step toward putting food on the table.”

Without the basics - food, water and shelter - it’s hard for students to thrive, local educators said.

“Our students are in fact making that choice every day, there’s no question,” said Genevieve Bertone, director of student equity at Santa Rosa Junior College. “This is a big issue. There’s a strong correlation between getting an F and food security.”

Depending on their income and expenses, a single student can receive up to $192 a month to spend on nutritious food through the CalFresh program. The money is deposited on an Electronic Benefits Transfer card, which can be used like a debit card at most grocery stores and many farmers markets.

Food insecurity has become an issue not just in California, but across the country.

About half of college students nationally don’t have reliable access to sufficient quantities of food, according to the Hope Center for College, Community and Justice, a Philadelphia-based nonprofit. Last year, a California State University system survey discovered that 42 percent of students across its campuses are food insecure.

“We know that the CSU system closely mirrors the California Community Colleges systems in terms of demographics,” Bertone said.

While there’s a clear need for food assistance for college students, the application system is more difficult for them, compared to nonstudents.

Many college students find it challenging to prove they are financially independent from their families, said Stacy Holguin, interim associate vice president for student affairs at Sonoma State University.

And paperwork varies county-by-county, so Sonoma State students with a permanent address in a different county could face barriers, as well.

“It’s hopefully a way for it to be less difficult,” Holguin said about the bill.

Maria Fuentes, food connections manager at Redwood Empire Food Bank, oversees the nonprofit’s CalFresh outreach program. She said students have to verify financial aid, their schedules, show identification, pay stubs, participate in an interview, and meet more qualifications than applicants who aren’t students.

“Sometimes finding those documents are a bit challenging,” Fuentes said.

Dodd’s bill could help about 50,000 college students across the state enroll in CalFresh, based on how many 2015-16 school year students participated in work study, a federally funded program where college students demonstrating financial need work part-time jobs, said spokesman Paul Payne.

There were 905 SRJC students awarded federal work study this semester. Both the junior college and Sonoma State have food pantries consistently used by students.

“There’s so much shame and blame around getting help, but we’re trying to normalize help and remind students that the most successful people have had help along the way,” Bertone said.

You can reach Staff Writer Susan Minichiello at 707-521-5216 or susan.minichiello@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @susanmini.

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