In the next few weeks, 2.7 million California college students will be picking out new classes, buying books and getting to know their new roommates. And according to numerous studies, somewhere between a third-and-a-half of these students will be forced to skip meals or eat inexpensive, unhealthy foods because of a lack of funds.
And, these food insecurity studies were done before this year’s California tidal wave of rent increases that have emptied out so many college students’ wallets. Many colleges around the state have established food pantries, or programs through which students can donate meals from their meal plan to other students. Hunger is a gigantic problem, causing some students to drop out or perform poorly.
Given the extent of the problem, one would hope we were taking advantage of every federal program to help our California students. But we are not. According to a study done by the national nonprofit, Young Invincibles, which advocates for young adults, there are 320,000 California college students who qualify for CalFresh (food stamp) benefits, worth approximately $125 a month. But only 70,000 students are receiving them. The other 250,000 college students are missing out on an additional $375 million dollars a year in food benefits.
This is all federal money that could be coming into our state. There are many reasons for the lack of CalFresh participation among college students, but the main cause is that many students do not know that they are eligible. The rules are incredibly confusing and difficult to understand.
As part of my work with our N&R Publications division, I had an opportunity to delve into the confusing CalFresh regulations when we produced an outreach publication for Placer, Sacramento and Yolo counties, currently being distributed at local colleges. We’ve had good feedback about how our publication has helped explain the programs that are available, and we’re hoping that a lot more qualified students will get CalFresh benefits this year.
I came away from this experience with an extra appreciation for those who have to navigate those regulations, but also with the understanding that an effective outreach program could have a major impact on so many students’ lives. One does not need an advanced degree to understand what it would mean for a student struggling to stay in school, keep a roof over his or her head and food on the table to suddenly receive $125 each month in food benefits. Single parents would receive more.
And many students qualify, including students with a Cal Grant, those who qualify for work study, students working over 20 hours a week or students with children.
In California, federal benefit programs such as CalFresh, veteran benefits and Medi-Cal are managed by 58 different counties. Some counties have been very successful in helping their residents take advantage of federal programs. Other counties have not done so well, and on the whole, California lags behind other states.
To help our college students, there should be a statewide effort by the California Department of Social Services, the counties and the California college campuses to mount an educational campaign to help students navigate the confusing rules and regulations. While there is no law against letting our college students go hungry when there is a solution available, it is wrong.
Hunger should not be part of the college experience. Calculus is punishment enough.