COVID exacerbated worries and struggles associated with food insecurity, but help is available for college and university students

Hunger on campus: Finding help for food insecurity

COVID exacerbated worries and struggles associated with food insecurity, but help is available for college and university students

Before the pandemic, the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) was not available to assist most food-insecure students. The majority of students enrolled at least half-time at a college or university were ineligible for SNAP benefits unless they meet certain specific exemptions. However, the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2021 has temporarily expanded SNAP eligibility to include students who either are eligible to participate in state or federally financed work study during the regular academic year (as determined by the college or university); or have an expected family contribution (EFC) of 0 in the current academic year. This includes students who are eligible for a maximum Pell Grant.

As part of its ongoing efforts to assist millions of Americans experiencing economic hardships during the COVID-19 pandemic, the U.S. Department of Education (DOE)—in collaboration with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)—has issued guidance to colleges and universities to inform them about the temporarily expanded SNAP eligibility for students who require assistance.

This temporary expansion of benefits became available in mid-January. Students who meet one of the two criteria described may receive SNAP benefits if they meet all other financial and non-financial SNAP eligibility criteria. These new, temporary exemptions will be in effect until 30 days after the COVID-19 public health emergency is lifted, according to the U.S. Department of Education (DOE). More information can be found on the SNAP benefits for student webpage and Q&A on student eligibility.

“Since the onset of this pandemic, college students already living with low incomes have experienced significant life disruptions including increased food insecurity,” said acting assistant secretary for Postsecondary Education Michelle Asha Cooper in a DOE press release. “No student should have to worry about where their next meal will come from while balancing their studies. Informing eligible students of these benefits can help ease that uncertainty.”

Guidance surrounding this temporary expansion of eligibility encourages institutions to coordinate with campus stakeholders to notify eligible students. This recent action follows guidance issued in late January reminding institutions that they have the authority to adjust financial aid packages to account for students’ and families’ current financial circumstances.

Because the SNAP program is administered by state-level agencies that process applications and determine eligibility, students who potentially qualify for benefits should contact their local SNAP offices to learn how to apply or to seek answers to any questions they may have. Colleges and universities with questions about student SNAP eligibility, including the temporary expansion, should contact their state SNAP agency. Contact information for each state’s SNAP agencies and local offices can be found at the USDA Food and Nutrition Service website.

On an ongoing national level, the College & University Food Bank Alliance (CUFBA) is a nonprofit organization of campus-based programs focused on alleviating food insecurity, hunger, and poverty among higher-ed students across the country. Founded in 2012, CUFBA currently has over 700 members providing resources to individuals and organizations running food pantries and continuing to address food insecurity on campuses.

Among the resources on the CUFBA are downloadable guides for starting and operating a campus food pantry.

Unfortunately, once the pandemic is behind us and life returns to normal, there will continue to be students struggling with food insecurity. Campus administrators can be proactive in helping to alleviate the problem by being aware it exists and offering resources to combat it.

Shannon O'Connor, Editor at Large, eCampus News
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