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It’s undeniable that the cost of attending college keeps rising. But there’s more to the cost of enrollment than just tuition and books. A surprising number of college students deal with basic needs insecurity, meaning they struggle to secure stable housing or enough food to eat.
With fall classes about to begin, there are some pandemic-era options for students struggling to afford food. Though these options are temporary, lawmakers are also looking at long-term solutions to alleviate food insecurity for this demographic.
Food Insecurity Persistent for College Students
Food insecurity, or not having reliable access to food because of your financial situation, can create occasional to severe problems. It’s evaluated by the US Department of Agriculture using prompts like:
- “Were you very hungry but didn’t eat because there wasn’t enough money for food?”
- “Did you ever eat less than you felt you should because there wasn’t enough money for food?”
- “I worried whether my food would run out before I got money to buy more.”
Food insecurity on college campuses has long been an issue, but it’s only in the last 10 or so years that data have backed anecdotes about surviving on instant noodles.
A fall 2019 survey of nearly 167,000 students nationwide found that 39% of students at two-or four-year schools had experienced food insecurity in the last 30 days. The annual survey was conducted by Temple University’s Hope Center for College, Community and Justice, which studies basic needs in security for college students.
The pandemic has only exacerbated the problem.
In fall 2020, the Hope Center found that 34% of college students experienced food insecurity 30 days prior. Students who had Covid-19 were 1.7 times more likely to experience food insecurity than those who hadn’t been infected with the virus.
Meanwhile, another fall 2020 survey of 1,000 undergraduates found that 52% of students sometimes used off-campus food banks, while 30% used them monthly or more frequently. Thirty-five percent of students said their hunger had impacted their ability to study at some point. That survey, conducted jointly by learning platform Chegg, national nonprofit Swipe Out Hunger, and the Born This Way Foundation, also found that more than one-third of students knew someone who had dropped out of school due to difficulties affording food.
The Ripple Effect of Hunger on College Campuses
The impact of food insecurity on college students can be long-ranging.
Students who deal with hunger often get lower grades than their counterparts, and tend to withdraw before their degree or certificate, explains Tenille Metti Bowling, director of communications at Swipe Out Hunger.
“When students drop out, they end up qualifying for fewer jobs because they don’t have that certification, earn less money, and have difficulty repaying their student loans,” Metti Bowling says.
Read more: What Happens To Your Student Loans When You Drop Out Of College
But there’s still a stigma for students having a hard time affording food. Shame and embarrassment can keep students from asking for help. Students willing to seek help may not know where to begin.
The Hope Center found that 52% of students who faced food or housing insecurity in 2020 didn’t apply for any support programs because they didn’t know how.
All three stimulus packages passed by Congress during the pandemic included funding—to date, more than $76 billion—for colleges and universities that could be used as emergency grants for students.
But only the third round of stimulus payments included adult dependents such as college students. And other benefit programs treat them as an afterthought.
Students attending college more than half time (as determined by your school) are usually not eligible for SNAP (food stamps). However, students who work at least 20 hours per week or participate in a federal or state-financed work-study program—which are assigned on a first come, first serve basis—can get benefits. In addition, the following are eligible: parents with kids under 6; parents with kids age 6 to 11 who lack the child care necessary to meet work requirements; and single parents of a child under 12 who are enrolled full-time.
The stimulus package passed in December 2020 relaxed restrictions for student eligibility for SNAP. Until the end of the pandemic, eligible students for a state or federal work-study program can apply for SNAP, along with students who have an expected family contribution (EFC) of $0 when they submit their financial aid application.
But by that point, students had already endured about 10 months of the pandemic. Alleviating their hunger has in large part fallen on state lawmakers and individual campuses.
Read more: Biden Gives Largest Permanent Increase To Food Stamps In History
What’s Being Done to Help College Students in Distress
The pandemic has drawn attention to food insecurity for college students, but it’s unclear how quickly federal lawmakers might move to provide students with options for filling their financial gaps.
The Enhanced Access to SNAP Act (EATS Act), introduced in the House of Representatives in March 2021, seeks to permanently extend SNAP eligibility to college students. The bill has 78 cosponsors in the House—all Democrats—but has not yet been considered in a committee. The bill was also introduced in the Senate in July with five cosponsors.
“Even though there’s federal legislation on the table, in lieu of [waiting]states are stepping up,” Metti Bowling says.
Four states—California, New Jersey, Maryland and Minnesota—have passed legislation to allocate funding to higher education institutions specifically to alleviate food insecurity. The funds can go toward a variety of programs, including creating a “swipe drive” program that allows students to donate their extra campus meals to their peers, creating a food pantry or partnering with a local food bank, or creating SNAP enrollment assistance programs. (The framework of the Hunger-Free Campus Bill, which has been introduced for consideration in a total of 10 states since 2017, was created by Swipe Out Hunger.)
Some states have expanded SNAP eligibility for the community college students by designating their enrollment in some programs as participating in a SNAP employment training program. Pennsylvania did this in 2018, while Massachusetts has been doing so since 2010. New York and Oregon have similarly adjusted college classifications so their students can be eligible for SNAP.
In California, college students can sign up for CalFresh, the state’s SNAP program. They don’t need their parents’ tax information to apply, and the state says two in five students are eligible.
On campus, the College & University Food Bank Alliance reports it has more than 700 members who operate food pantries for students. But the success of these locations depends mainly on students getting to campus to access the pantry, which for some students became a challenge during the pandemic.
Students concerned about affording food can seek help by doing the following:
- Contact your student services or student support office to learn about food assistance options, which may include:
- Visiting a food pantry on or near campus
- Getting help applying for SNAP or other assistance programs
- Locating free food opportunities on campus (some schools send text messages when there’s extra food after events)
- Receiving meal credits from a donation drive or other programs
- Contact your financial aid office to learn about emergency assistance options, which may include:
- Grants specific to Covid-19 aid
- Funds from other school initiatives to aid students in dire financial situations