No one should have to sacrifice food to pursue higher education

When we think about students attending college in the United States, it often evokes nostalgic and romantic ideas about the traditional college campus experience. “Broke college students” sacrifice their health to save time and money as they squeeze fun in between their classes for a few short years.

Irene Corona, Health Policy Intern, UnidosUS 

Many live off inexpensive foods like ramen and dollar menu meals as a harmless rite of passage that college students briefly endure before starting their careers.  

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But does anyone imagine college students standing in line at soup kitchens or food pantries to stave off the suffering of hunger? 

College students are particularly susceptible to food insecurity for several reasons. Most college students are young adults, newly financially independent, at the mercy of rising tuition and housing costs.  

In 2016, 39% of college students were low-income, compared to 28% in 1996. Over that same period, average undergraduate costs rose by 34% in public institutions and 26% in private colleges and universities.  

Many other students work part-time and raise families as they attend college. And nearly half of Latino students are low-income Pell Grant recipients. Pell Grants can lose considerable purchasing power when student income falls and college costs rise.  

Food insecurity is widespread among college students 

Food insecurity among college students is surprisingly common—and the problem worsened during the pandemic. In 2018 the Journal of Hunger and Environmental Nutrition reported that 43.3% of college students were food insecure before the pandemic. In 2019, Temple University’s Hope Center conducted a nationwide college student survey that found similar pre-pandemic results: 39% of students experienced food insecurity in the month before the survey.  

Another national survey of college students fielded in October and November 2020 found that 29% of college students missed meals at least once each week since the beginning of the pandemic. Another 35% said hunger affected their ability to study, more than half (52%) of students were forced to use off-campus food banks, and nearly a quarter (24%) had to take out loans to cover their food costs. 

 SNAP could help more college students than it does currently 

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is the nation’s largest food benefits program supporting needy families’ food budgets. These benefits allow families to purchase foods such as fruits, vegetables, meat, and poultry. But college students are ineligible for SNAP benefits, with a few exceptions. These exemptions are decades old and difficult to understand. Because of the complexity of these exemptions, many college students often assume they are entirely ineligible and do not qualify for SNAP.  

The Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021 provided two additional exemptions, which made an additional three million students eligible for SNAP. The exemptions include students that qualify for a federal work-study program or have an expected family contribution (EFC) of 0 based on their Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). In 2019, around 4% of Latino students received federal work-study, and Latinos have lower EFCs than non-Hispanic whites. Because these exemptions are set to expire following the end of the public health emergency, policymakers must act now. Given the significant share of Latino students that are low income, Pell Grant recipients, the expiration is likely to impact Latinos disproportionately.      

How can policymakers support students’ food security needs? 

Certain states have already taken the initiative to do more. For instance, California allows more than 127,000 low-income college students to access nutrition benefits through its CalFresh program. Among the students enrolled in CalFresh, food insecurity decreased by approximately 63% at a six-month follow-up.  

In addition to California’s exemplary efforts to address food insecurity among college students, there is also federal legislation that provides further hope. The Student Food Security Act of 2021 is a bill introduced in both the Senate and the House of Representatives to permanently expand students’ eligibility to participate in SNAP and address food insecurity on college campuses. 

My own experience 

As a college student, I often find myself rationing food in hopes of having enough meals for the week. Before the research I conducted as an intern with the Health Policy Project at UnidosUS, I had no idea that I qualified for SNAP benefits. As my summer internship came to an end, I came to understand that the work is only just beginning.  

I am inspired by all the work I have been a part of during my summer with the UnidosUS health policy team. I am beyond grateful for this internship opportunity, and I look forward to applying everything I have learned in my future projects. When I return to the University of Central Florida in the Fall, I plan to work with organizations around my campus to perform outreach for other students who are potentially eligible for these benefits as well.  

One hungry college student is one too many. No one should have to sacrifice food to pursue higher education.