Some college students no longer qualify for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program after pandemic exemptions expired in July, and many Democrats in Congress are pushing to use the next farm bill to address the issue. 

The path to benefits was easier in the 2021-22 school year, when the COVID-19 public health emergency eliminated work requirements for college students who met the regular SNAP income requirements.

California State University at Long Beach graduate student Natalie TuyếtNhi Trần is one of the lucky ones. 

She just received approval for $281 a month in SNAP benefits that she said will be “tremendously helpful” in helping her focus on her final year of schooling to become a community college counselor. As an older college student, she qualifies based on her income level and recognition of the hours she's doing field work, but other college students won't be as fortunate.

In addition to being a full-time student, TuyếtNhi Trần must conduct unpaid field work, making it virtually impossible to meet the 20-hour-a-week work requirement that able-bodied adults must meet to be eligible for SNAP. 

A bill called the Enhance Access to SNAP Act and introduced in the House and Senate would exempt students from being required to work or participate in a federal or state work-study program to qualify for SNAP. 

During the COVID-19 pandemic, temporary exemptions allowed any student who was eligible for federal or state work-study and students with an “expected family contribution” of $0, as well as those receiving the maximum Pell Grant, to qualify for SNAP benefits. The bill introduced by Rep. Jimmy Gomez, D-Calif., and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., would make those temporary exemptions permanent. The proposal is intended for inclusion in the next farm bill. 

Hope Center Survey released in March 2021 found that on average, 39% of students at two-year institutions and 29% at four-year institutions faced food insecurity. Other studies have found it ranges from 19% to 56% of college students.

Food Research and Action Center, UnidosUS and the National Urban League are coleading an effort to get more lawmakers to join the 145 representatives and senators, all Democrats, who have expressed their support for the bill.

FRAC SNAP Deputy Director Gina Plata-Nino said, “We know as a whole that many students just do not apply for this program because of the burdensome requirements.”

TuyếtNhi Trần said the monthly SNAP benefits may not seem like much to an outsider, but they ease the anxiety of wondering how to sustain herself so she can complete her program and eventually “get a degree, get a better paying job and move up.”

She started her college career at a community college where she received some federal and state funding, which provided a small financial cushion for basic needs, but in her final two years of undergrad and now in her master’s program, the aid only covers tuition and offers little extra time outside of school.

Another first-generation college student, Sergio Bocardo-Aguilar, who studies political science at University of California, Davis, said he didn't have access to food consistently when he was growing up or during his first year of college. “When you’re hungry and you go to class, you’re just thinking about when you’re going to get your next meal,” he said. 

At UC Davis, college work-study hours were limited to no more than 19.5 hours. Exemptions allowed him to qualify for SNAP.

While college students who are eligible for work-study are exempt from the 20-hour work requirement, Plata-Nino said work-study is not guaranteed at every campus. Only 16% of institutions offer work-study opportunities, which also creates additional barriers to qualifying for SNAP.

“A full-time course load is typically 12 credits, meaning students may dedicate 36 hours a week to their education — outside of the hours they spend in class. This is typically the minimum. Requiring that they spend an additional 20 hours in a job can prove detrimental to their studies. In fact, it is estimated that working students are about 20% less likely to graduate than their peers who do not work,” according to the letter to congressional members. 

Kathleen Merrigan, a deputy secretary of agriculture during the Barack Obama administration who now directs Arizona State University's Swette Center for Sustainable Food Systems, said that while data is lacking on the depth of the hunger problem on college campuses, “we have enough data to know that it’s very real.” 

KathleenMerrigan-300.jpgKathleen Merrigan, Arizona State University

Merrigan is working with Sara El-Sayed, an assistant research professor with the Swette Center, to better understand the issue. Merrigan directs the center. 

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El-Sayed came from Egypt with her husband and three children to complete her doctoral degree. Student visa restrictions prevented her from accessing SNAP, but she was only given about $25,000 per year as a stipend during her time in doctoral school. She did not consider herself food insecure, as she always found a way to “manage,” but she knows how difficult it is to find sufficient food with a small budget while attending school full time.

When she started to do more research on food insecurity on college campuses, she was “shocked to see that one of the richest countries in the world doesn’t give much support for college students as they’re transitioning in this period.”

Plata-Nino also said this is an equity issue. “If we want our first-generation students, and if we want our students of color to be able to access the resources and accumulate economic mobility like other people groups, it is important for us to prioritize their access to this program,” she said.

Merrigan said the college students of today are different than they were even a decade before, facing new challenges to create a better life for themselves. In addition, students at historically Black colleges and universities had higher rates of basic needs insecurity than their four-year minority-serving institutions, another Hope Center Survey report noted. Forty-six percent of HBCU students surveyed experienced food insecurity.

“We really need to have members of Congress hear from some of these voices of this really diverse mix of life circumstances who are our students now in our colleges and universities,” Merrigan said.

She said it’s “shortsighted” for people to believe that you shouldn’t be able to go to college if you can’t afford it, but instead recognize the many sacrifices made for those trying to get on a path toward upward mobility.

The discussion of inclusion within the farm bill comes on the heels of a heated SNAP work requirement debate that arose during the budget fight earlier this year.

Rachel Sheffield, welfare and family policy research fellow at The Heritage Foundation, told Agri-Pulse that there are already several exemptions to the SNAP work requirements for college students.

“The Enhance Access to SNAP Act is bad policy because it expands welfare benefits without considering whether recipients can provide for themselves. Most college students are able-bodied adults, and many students work to pay for school. There are also already many sources of assistance available to students,” Sheffield said. 

The Congressional Budget Office hasn't estimated the cost of the bill.

Plata-Nino said even with the COVID flexibilities, they did not see a large increase in college students receiving SNAP, but she said it's difficult to tabulate how many students would be eligible or would want to apply. 

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