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Keeping low-income college students from going hungry

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Before COVID-19 arrived in the U.S., millions of college students already weren’t sure where their next meal would come from. This pandemic has further intensified this food insecurity and poses significant challenges as colleges plan to reopen this fall. 

This summer the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported the unemployment rate among 20 to 24 year-olds jumped from 9 percent to 26 percent, making it one of the hardest hit age groups. Urgent policy action is needed to ensure the health and wellbeing of these young people.

Pre-pandemic, one in every three college students in the U.S. – more than 7.8 million – were living in or near poverty. Most undergraduates (72 percent) needed financial aid, and students experiencing economic hardship and food insecurity reported lower grades and delays in degree completion. Students of color, who now make up 45 percent of enrolled college students in the U.S., are among the most likely to experience food insecurity. Many of these are also first-generation college students, who don’t have a parent that graduated from college, which makes them even more vulnerable.

Federal nutrition assistance programs, such as SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as Food Stamps) were not designed to meet the needs of today’s students and were written under the assumption that college students were generally from families of means and were supported by their parents. Most able-bodied students aren’t even eligible for these benefits unless they meet certain criteria like if they are part of a work study program, get assistance under Title IV-A program, or is a single parent, to name a few.  

However, many students don’t meet these limited criteria. A recent Government Accountability Office (GAO) report found that more than half of students who are eligible under these criteria — nearly 2 million — still don’t receive benefits. The GAO has recommended that information about SNAP eligibility be better communicated to students and that best practices and technical assistance strategies for enrolling students be better shared across state agencies. However, during an unprecedented pandemic, with far-reaching economic effects and rising poverty and food insecurity, more urgent action is needed, including actions to address gaps in SNAP eligibility for college students.

Advocates have been urging Congressional members to better address the basic needs of college students long before this pandemic but they recognize college students are particularly hard hit by the loss of college campus jobs and the closure of restaurants, among other industries that typically employ college students. Unemployment disqualifies college students from SNAP. Therefore, advocates have been calling on Congress to temporarily suspend the SNAP student rule. A number of states also requested waivers from the USDA to expand the limited eligibility criteria established under the Food and Nutrition Act of 2008 for college students, but they were denied.

The Emergency Ensuring Access to SNAP Act (EATS) and the End Pandemic Hunger For College Students Act have been recently introduced to ensure low-income college students who meet all other eligibility standards are not denied this vital federal nutrition assistance during this pandemic. Theresa McCormick, the director of programs at Second Harvest Heartland, notes that not only are low-income college students the most affected from the coronavirus school and economic closures, they’ve been largely left out of the emergency responses to the pandemic. Meanwhile, other groups have received the necessary support. 

It’s time for USDA, state social service agencies, and Congress to do their homework and update SNAP eligibility, communication, outreach, and technical assistance to better align with today’s college student needs.

Melissa Laska, PhD, RD is a distinguished McKnight University professor at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health.

Sheila Fleischhacker, PhD, JD is an adjunct professor of law at Georgetown University Law Center and authored a recent review of legislative and executive developments affecting SNAP.

Tags college students Congress economic crisis Food insecurity low-income students Pandemic Poverty safety net Snap SNAP benefits Unemployment University

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