When officials looked at Yolo County’s participation rate in CalFresh – the food assistance program known generically and more common as food stamps – one thing clearly stood out. In a state that ranks last in the nation in SNAP participation, Yolo County consistently ranks in the bottom five in the state and the reason is clear – UC Davis students are eligible for benefits but not accessing them.
UC Davis is not exceptional in that respect – but it stands out because of the high proportion of the Yolo County population UC Davis represents.
The reaction has been, as pointed in this week’s Atlantic: “As the costs of college have climbed, some students have gone hungry. When they’ve voiced frustration, they’ve often been ridiculed: ‘Ramen is cheap,’ or ‘Just eat cereal.’”
That is a notion disputed by many familiar with food insecurity problems and it is also pointed out in our a new report from the GAO (Government Accountability Office) which finds that there are millions of students at risk of being food insecure.
The report finds that “having a low income is the most common risk factor for food insecurity among college students. Among low-income students, most have one additional risk factor associated with food insecurity, such as being a first-generation student or a single parent.”
Federal data shows that most low-income students have multiple risk factors associated with food insecurity. While there no nationally representative data on food insecurity, the risk factors the report identified include, among others: low-income, housing issues, demographic characteristics and other stressors.
“Nationally representative survey data that would support direct estimates of the prevalence of food insecurity among college students do not currently exist,” the report warns.
In order to determine how many students then fall into this category, the GAO reviewed 31 studies conducted since 2007, which they found to find a range of 9 percent to well over 50 percent.
However, 22 of the 31 studies estimated food insecurity rates of 30 percent.
The report concludes, “The federal government invests billions of dollars annually in higher education through grants and loans to low-income students. Partially as a result of this investment, a college education is accessible to more low-income Americans than ever before.”
However, “Despite this federal support, many low-income college students struggle to meet their basic needs, including obtaining the food that they need.”
The result is that many students may drop out of college as a result.
While SNAP and, in California, CalFresh, “can be an important source of support for low-income students” however, “because the SNAP eligibility requirements for college students can be difficult for students and colleges to understand, students may be unaware of or misinformed about their potential eligibility for SNAP.”
Like UC Davis, there is a problem with low participation. The report finds that “almost 2 million at-risk students who were potentially eligible for SNAP did not report receiving benefits in 2016.”
The Vanguard will visit Aggie Compass later this week, but, as we reported earlier, UC Davis and the county have taken steps to put full-time eligibility workers in the community, and particularly on campus. Recently Yolo County re-opened the administration building on A Street in Davis and, for the first time, there is full time access for Davis residents to services without having to drive to Woodland.
“We had to find a way in,” Supervisor Don Saylor explained. “We had to find a way to access the students.”
But UC Davis is not alone. The Vanguard was told that each student eligible for Work Study is eligible for CalFresh.
The Atlantic reports that “students who meet the basic criteria for SNAP eligibility and are younger than 18 or older than 50, or who have children, or who work a minimum of 20 hours a week are also eligible to receive the benefit.”
But the problem goes beyond that. The Atlantic talked with Temple University Professor Sara Goldrick-Rab, a recognized scholar on campus hunger. She pointed out that food pantries only scratch the surface of the issue.
“When there’s a food pantry, there’s somebody who is acknowledging the problem,” she said. The problem of food insecurity goes beyond just low-income students who are eligible for SNAP or CalFresh.
The students most vulnerable might be middle-class students. Those students who are “too rich for Pell and too poor to afford college,” and are unlikely to use things like a food pantry.
Senator Patti Murray said that we have to look beyond just tuition costs to deal with “all of the costs that come to a student as they try to complete college, including food and housing.”
The report, for example, cites a community college official who told them: “We have come to realize that we can’t address retention and completion without addressing students’ basic needs.”
Here is one of the problems that the report cites – even the remedy is causing a problem. The report notes: “Several higher education officials and one researcher noted that when a student qualifies for a student exemption by working 20 hours a week, it can have a detrimental impact on college completion.”
They cite research that shows “full-time college students who work more than 15 hours a week or who reduce their college course load and attend part time in order to increase their work hours are less likely to complete their degree or educational program.”
As Professor Goldrick-Rab put it, “that food insecurity is a college-completion issue.” She said, “We’re undermining our federal investment in financial aid by not paying attention to this. We have to stop pretending like living expenses are not educational expenses.”
—David M. Greenwald reporting