A call to connect more college students with federal food assistance program

Many students experiencing food insecurity are missing out on receiving monthly food assistance benefits through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), according to a new report from The Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice at Temple University. Titled “Closing the College SNAP Gap,” the report both highlights the number of eligible students who don’t take advantage of the SNAP benefits and calls on states and institutions to increase the share of SNAP-eligible students who actually enroll in the program.

To qualify for SNAP, formerly known as Food Stamps, applicants must meet federal eligibility requirements and income limits, which vary by state. Federal law also limits SNAP eligibility for students, as they must work at least 20 hours per week if they attend school at least half-time. In response to the COVID-19 public health emergency, Congress temporarily loosened restrictions, waving work requirements so that students with $0 in expected financial contributions or those who are eligible for federal or state work-study can qualify for SNAP. That emergency exemption, which opens up the program to more than three million students, lasts through Spring 2023, though advocates are urging federal and state governments to further extend the exemptions.

“It’s absolutely valuable for students to apply for SNAP now while it’s a little easier, and it’s valuable for colleges to provide that information to students,” Thomas Hilliard, senior policy analyst at the Hope Center and one of the authors of the report, told Diverse Issues in Higher Education.

Related: Peer programs connect food-insecure college students with SNAP benefits >

Food-insecure students ‘are not alone’

A Hope Center national survey of students during Fall 2020 found that 34% experienced food insecurity, and recent inflation has only increased food prices. However, an estimated 69% of eligible students have not signed up for SNAP, according to the Hope Center’s calculations from a U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) report. Institutions can help close this college SNAP gap by reaching out to low-income students to ensure they are aware of SNAP benefits, helping them apply if they are eligible, and reducing the stigma around food insecurity and applying for public benefits. Using administrative data, financial aid offices can also send customized emails, text, and postcards to students to let them know they may be eligible for the program.

Related: Survey finds 3 in 5 college students report basic needs insecurity >

“Many students are prone to think of receiving a public benefit as a form of dependency and to feel shame personally,” said Hillard. “[T]he most important breakthrough that colleges have made in student outreach is helping them understand that they’re not alone, and that these are widespread societal problems.”

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