Peer programs connect food-insecure college students with SNAP benefits

Recognizing that their peers may not be aware of—or comfortable seeking out—food assistance benefits during this time of extreme strain, college students are launching navigator programs that help their communities access basic necessities. The efforts come as nearly 3 million college students are newly eligible for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits—and as the pandemic continues to exacerbate food-insecurity across college campuses.  

Related: More college students now qualify for SNAP benefits >

Expanded SNAP eligibility arrives amid widespread food insecurity

Chegg, an education technology company, surveyed 1,000 undergraduate students across the U.S. this past fall and found that 52 percent of respondents relied on off-campus food banks; approximately 30 percent visited them at least once a month. In addition, almost one-third of students said they’ve missed a meal at least once per week since the pandemic began, and more than 30 percent shared that hunger has impacted their studies or that they know someone who has deferred their education due to food insecurity. 

“Students shouldn’t have to make the choice between going to class and being able to afford their next meal,” Ashley Burnside, policy analyst at The Center for Law and Social Policy told Money

In light of these challenges, legislators recently lifted some restrictions on students’ SNAP eligibility within the omnibus pandemic relief bill signed in December 2020. 

The change could give an additional 2.5 million undergraduate students and nearly 500,000 graduate students access to as much as $700 million in monthly benefits—but “this money will never reach newly eligible students if they do not know about it,” says Peter Granville, senior policy associate at The Century Foundation.

The SNAP application process is notoriously confusing and prone to misinterpretation, and Granville says that hands-on assistance leads to greater SNAP utilization than information-sharing alone. SNAP’s food-purchasing support, he writes, “is essential not only to ensure that college students are fed, but also to create more affordable and equitable pathways to and through college.”

Students step in as vanguards of peer-support 

Students are stepping up to provide guidance, serving as navigators to help their peers access food assistance and other available resources. 

“Being a low-income student is hard, lonely, ostracizing,” Jessica Bartlow, chief of staff for California Sen. Nancy Skinner, told Civil Eats. “For low-income, especially first-generation, college students to find networks and support each other in a college environment is powerful,” Bartlow said, noting that she battled food insecurity and homelessness as an undergraduate. 

Swipe Out Hunger, a student-run anti-hunger initiative, has teamed up with Rise, a student-led organization that advocates for college access, to train students to become navigators for their peers. Around 130 schools, including the City University of New York (CUNY) system, have signed on; CUNY also recently launched a digital portal to facilitate referral efforts. During 2020, the Rise Student Navigator Network assisted more than 7,000 students facing hardships. 

Related: College food-service provider and Swipe Out Hunger to pilot meal-swipe program >

The network of college student mediators is often tapped to help with SNAP applications or finding food resources in the area for students and their families. Many navigators also say they have fielded requests for mental health and housing assistance. College access experts and navigators alike say the peer-to-peer model is crucial in overcoming perceived stigma around accessing nutrition benefits and other support systems.

Related: Students launch mutual aid networks to meet financial, basic needs >

“They are experiencing similar things to myself,” Christal Yu, a 22-year-old human services major at CUNY’s Borough of Manhattan Community College and student navigator, told Civil Eats. “A lot of struggles are unseen, and sometimes people [also] struggle with admitting they need help. It’s really revealing.”

Colleges are further bolstering support by offering on-campus food options. The University of California at Irvine’s FRESH Basic Needs Hub, which has been utilized more than 6,400 times during the 2020-21 academic year, offers a food pantry, meal-swipe system, fresh produce from local farms, and support for applying for state and federal aid.

Similarly, Baylor University has a pantry with multiple fridges stationed around campus stocked with food and hosts a free farmers market for its students. Other institutions, like the University of Minnesota, have partnered with organizations like GrubHub to provide hot meals to their students throughout the country. 

Advocates are working to call more attention to the student hunger crisis, as it has an intense and adverse effect on students’ health and academic success. “We want our students to think about food resources the same way they would think about academic advising or tutoring,” says Michelle Cohenour, director of student success initiatives at Baylor University, which is launching a team to promote SNAP sign-ups. 

Andrea Gutierrez, the Hub Director at UC Irvine, emphasizes that food security and success go hand-in-hand. “This is a safety net you have while you’re on campus, because we are committed to getting you to graduation,” she says.

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