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By Joanna Nesbit
Updated: February 16, 2021 8:25 AM ET | Originally published: February 15, 2021
A student is picking on the potato at the Irvine Farmer's Market.
Steve Zylius / UCI

On any given day, Christal Yu fields about 10 texts and emails from fellow students asking about food pantries, rental assistance, or low-cost textbooks. A student at Borough of Manhattan Community College, she balances schoolwork with her role as a student navigator, guiding peers to critical resources.

Right now, one of her biggest priorities is getting the word out about a big change to one of those resources: the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

Estimates on student hunger vary, but according to a recent survey by Chegg, one in three college students has experienced food insecurity since the beginning of the pandemic. Previous surveys ranged from about 10% to roughly half of students reporting food insecurity, depending on how hunger was measured.

Despite discrepancies, experts agree student hunger is a problem. That’s why the recent temporary expansion of SNAP eligibility is so vital for students, experts say.

But the expansion will only be effective if students know about it, which is where student leaders like Yu come in.

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What to know about the new SNAP rules

The SNAP expansion, part of the pandemic relief bill Congress passed in December, took effect in January — and will remain in place until the public health emergency is lifted.

What expanded, exactly? Two new criteria make it easier for students to qualify for food benefits. The changes make roughly 3 million more students eligible for help, according to an estimate from the Century Foundation, a left-leaning think tank. Now, low-income students may qualify if they are eligible for state or federal work-study (they needn’t be working to receive benefits) or they have an “expected family contribution” of $0 on their federal financial aid form. (It’s not too late to fill out that form. The federal deadline for the FAFSA is June 30.)

The SNAP application includes other criteria, like income limits as defined by your state, so a $0 EFC doesn’t automatically mean you can receive food benefits. You’ll need to ensure you meet the other criteria, too. Start by checking your state’s SNAP website, though keep in mind many states may not have updated student eligibility rules.

The SNAP program, sometimes known by its former name as food stamps, is the most stable way to combat food insecurity, experts say, and they urge students to apply for their state’s benefits.

“Students shouldn’t have to make the choice between going to class and being able to afford their next meal,” says Ashley Burnside, policy analyst at The Center for Law and Social Policy.

But the application can be intimidating and confusing, so some colleges have designated people to help students with it. Baylor University, for example, is gearing up a team now to promote SNAP, says Michelle Cohenour, director of student success initiatives. For help applying, find out if your college has a Basic Needs Office, or ask your Dean of Students, Student Affairs, or Multicultural Office about who to talk to.

Help on college campuses goes beyond the traditional food pantry

Even if students don’t qualify for SNAP, there are still a variety of ways colleges are trying to ensure that students don’t go hungry. Many colleges offer food programs students can access by filing a short intake form or meeting with a basic needs coordinator on campus.

The FRESH Basic Needs Hub at the University of California at Irvine, for example, hosts a food pantry, meal swipe program, fresh produce from a partner farm, and assistance applying for state and federal benefits. Undocumented students can get help, too. The food pantry has handled more than 6,400 visits so far this academic year, says Hub director Andrea Gutierrez. It’s the most used of all available services, even with fewer students on campus.

The food pantry at Baylor University is one of a variety of programs on the campus to make sure all students have enough to eat.
Courtesy of Baylor University.

Baylor University offers a food pantry, eight fridges around campus stocked with snacks, a free farmers market once per semester for all students, and a mobile food pantry twice per semester, Cohenour says. (The last is on hold during the pandemic.) The university’s faculty senate also recently funded a meal scholarship for this semester, which Baylor hopes to keep going if additional money can be raised.

Some colleges alert students to leftover food from campus events — though the pandemic has cancelled many. At Northern Arizona University, students can learn about Louie’s leftovers through push notifications from a mobile app.

Still, even with all these resources, one of the first tasks is simply defining the issue and raising awareness, says Stacy Raphael, case management director at Rise, a student-led organization that advocates for college access.

That’s because many students don’t even realize they fit the profile of food insecure, which could mean you’re reducing or skipping meals because you’re worried about money, or that you just can’t afford balanced meals.

National student organizations are raising awareness — and meals

Colleges aren’t doing all this work alone. In fact, it’s often student-led groups leading the way. Yu, the Borough of Manhattan Community College student, trained for her role as a navigator through a partnership launched in January between the City University of New York (CUNY) colleges and Swipe Out Hunger, a student-driven anti-hunger initiative.

Swipe Out Hunger works with students groups nationwide to help more students access meals on their campus. One way is through swipe drives, usually held once or twice a semester, during which students donate leftover meal swipes from their dining plan to a Meal Swipe Bank. The donated swipes then are loaded onto eligible students’ cards for the dining hall or food pantry.

The pandemic has pushed some colleges to prioritize food pantry grocery swipes over dining hall swipes for students who want to skip the dining hall, says Tenille Metti Bowling, communications director at Swipe Out Hunger. But even with students studying remotely or living off campus, many campuses still managed to hold successful electronic swipe drives. UCLA racked up 38,000 swipes at the beginning of pandemic, she says. And University of Minnesota’s swipe program partnered with Grub Hub to get hot meals to UMN students around the country.

Swipe Out Hunger already has programs on 130 campuses in 40 states. And this year, the non-profit organization’s swipe program will expand to 100 additional campuses through a partnership with Sodexo, the food services company serving those campuses. Sodexo has committed to donating a portion of swipes. Aramark, another food services company, also partners with Swipe Out Hunger on some initiatives.

Rise rolled out its own national student navigator network in June, assisting 8,000 students in all 50 states to locate resources so far.

“We have worked with students who have trouble accessing food, housing, transportation, medical care, mental health care, eyeglasses, books, WiFi… the gamut,” Raphael says. Along the way, navigators help students develop research skills so they’re able to self-advocate on their campus.

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Students should think of food help like academic advising

Student navigators are key in getting help to those who need it, because talking to a peer helps students feel more comfortable, Yu says. She’s currently managing a caseload of 60 students.

The navigators don’t just help with researching and connecting students to resources — they can also help combat the stigma associated with using food banks or pantries. In the Chegg survey, 64% of students cited stigma associated with visiting a food bank.

But it’s important for students to know that food insecurity contributes to stress and poor mental health, and that hurts students’ ability to study, experts say.

“We want our students to think about food resources the same way they would think about academic advising or tutoring,” Cohenour, at Baylor, says. “We never give a second thought to students seeking those resources.”

Gutierrez, at UC Irvine, reminds her students that being nourished is part of an important success strategy for reaching graduation.

“I like to tell students this is a safety net you have while you’re on campus because we are committed to getting you to graduation,” she says.

If you’re a student struggling to afford regular meals, talk to someone on your campus. Start with the Basic Needs Office or Student Affairs to learn about campus, community, and state resources, experts say. If that feels intimidating, you could sign up to work with a student navigator at Rise. And if you’re ready to start an anti-hunger program at your college, contact Swipe Out Hunger for guidance.

This story has been updated to clarify how Aramark works with Swipe Out Hunger.

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