Spotlight Exclusives

Rethinking College Students and SNAP

Tom Allison, Young Invincibles Tom Allison, Young Invincibles, posted on

In November of last year, students at Spelman College and Morehouse College initiated a hunger strike to draw attention to young adults experiencing food insecurity on campus. They made a simple but powerful argument: resources were available to feed their hungry peers, but due to bureaucratic rules and regulations, those resources were not reaching students in need. School policy barred students from sharing unused meals, or swipes, with their peers. Two weeks into the strike, the colleges announced a plan to deliver free meals to students in need and the protest was called off.

This student-led victory complements a growing movement in the higher education community to better define and address student hunger. We at Young Invincibles, a national research and advocacy organization dedicated to expanding economic opportunity for young adults, wanted to explore how the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps, is serving the needs of college students.

In our recent report “Rethinking SNAP Benefits: College Students and Food Insecurity,” we found that despite estimates showing that half of students experience hunger, only 18 percent of college students are actually eligible for federal food assistance through the SNAP program. Of the 3.4 million students that are eligible, only 600,000 students actually receive SNAP benefits. That’s less than one-in-five of those qualified, and 3 percent of college students at large. Added together, states are leaving $4.2 billion in federal dollars on the table that they could be delivering to their low-income students each year.

The image of a struggling, hungry college student subsiding on ramen noodles or scouring for free pizza at on-campus events has permeated pop culture in a lighthearted way, but going hungry has deep physical, emotional, and academic effects on students, and in some cases can prevent them from completing school entirely. Often times, without student action like the hunger strike, this problem can go unnoticed, especially since measuring student hunger requires students to self-report, and the stigma around food insecurity can keep students from seeking help.

Hundreds of thousands of college students experience food insecurity every day, a condition characterized by disrupted eating patterns and reduced quality and quantity of diets. Thanks to the work of advocates and researchers across the country, we have a decent idea of the depth and breadth of the problem: The Wisconsin HOPE Lab found that 56 percent of community college students living in urban areas and 53 percent in rural areas experienced low or very low food security. A consortium of groups similarly found that 22 percent of students had to forgo meals in the last 30 days and nearly half lacked an adequate “quality, variety, and desirability” of food as defined by U.S. Department of Agriculture guidelines.

Food insecurity carries serious consequences for student success. In one study, the majority of students experiencing food insecurity reported missing classes and study sessions and not buying required textbooks. Hunger also impairs cognitive development with some effects lasting into adulthood, leading to poorer test scores and the inability to fully engage in classes. With roughly half of college students earning a degree on time, and serious disparities for African American and Latino students, policymakers must realize campus hunger is a driving factor of lagging student success rates.

Our findings suggest two problems with the SNAP’s ability to help in-need college students.

First, states and counties, entities that play a key role in facilitating SNAP, need to simplify and modernize the application process to make it easier to deliver benefits to those who qualify. For starters, states should push to certify their Career and Technical Education programs as “Employment & Training” programs, for which the federal government waives the current work requirement. Also, the vast majority of states lack a mobile platform for coordinating benefits. Considering today’s young people disproportionately rely on mobile devices for internet access, this is a common sense solution to deliver benefits to those in need.

Second, federal eligibility standards are too tight. Not only do college students need to meet minimum thresholds of income and assets, they also need to work at least twenty hours per week. Working these hours (and proving it) act as an unnecessary barrier for students, many of who are taking full course loads, as well as taking care of their family members. Congress should grant universal eligibility to all students receiving a Pell grant, and do away with the work requirement. To facilitate this process, the Office of Federal Student Aid could assign these qualified students a unique code, not unlike a discount code applied in online shopping, that students could redeem with the state or county agency responsible for certifying eligibility. The code would remain valid while the student receives the Pell grant, eliminating the need for recertification.

Beyond public policy, food banks and community-based organizations can coordinate campus food pantries. Great organizations like Swipe Out Hunger and the students at Spelman and Morehouse are fighting institutions to allow for sharing of unused meals. And wrap-around programs like Single Stop, that include short-term financial assistance, have been proven to help students succeed.

We’re proud to be a part of a growing research and advocacy movement to help policymakers, institutions, and the public both acknowledge the scope of the student hunger problem as well as develop real solutions to help solve it.

Tom Allison is the deputy director of policy and research for Young Invincibles, the nation’s largest research and advocacy organization working to improve economic opportunity for young adults. You can read more of his work here and follow up on Twitter @tomallison.

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