College students eligible for food assistance deterred by confusing requirements

Apr 29, 2024

College students eligible for food assistance deterred by confusing requirements

Apr 29, 2024

Modifying Farm Bill could reduce barriers to SNAP for students and improve nutrition

Inadequate access to food can harm college students' health and academic performance. A recent University of California research study in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior investigated why UC students who are eligible for the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) – the nation's largest food assistance program – do not receive the benefit.

“Based on our study findings, eliminating the extra requirements for college students to qualify for SNAP would go a long way in ensuring that more eligible students get the support they need to meet their basic food needs,” said study coauthor Lorrene Ritchie, director of the UC Nutrition Policy Institute, which is part of UC Agriculture and Natural Resources.

A 2015 study by NPI found four in 10 UC students didn't have enough money to buy sufficient food for a healthy lifestyle. To promote better health, UC has taken steps to ensure students are aware of SNAP, established campus food pantries and other basic needs resources.   

"In California, SNAP is known as CalFresh and despite policies and communication to improve college students' access to CalFresh, participation remains low, with approximately 78% of those eligible not receiving benefits," said lead study author Suzanna M. Martinez, associate professor in the Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics at UC San Francisco.

For insight on why low-income UC students aren't receiving the benefits, Martinez, Ritchie and colleagues at UC San Francisco and Nutrition Policy Institute consulted county agencies that process student CalFresh applications. The researchers interviewed county staff in nine counties that are home to UC campuses: Alameda, Los Angeles, Merced, Orange, Riverside, San Francisco, Santa Barbara, Santa Cruz and Yolo.

While CalFresh benefits have mainly been paid by the federal government through the Farm Bill, counties contribute and county agencies are responsible for implementing policies, determining eligibility, processing applications and distributing funds.

“With the Farm Bill still up for reauthorization, these findings could provide insight into how to strengthen SNAP policy related to eligible students,” Martinez said.

The researchers conducted focus groups and interviews with county staff to determine how agency workers interpret the complex criteria for students to meet CalFresh eligibility.

Their questions focused on how students' applications differed from those of community members, steps taken when processing student applications, student-specific training and suggested improvements to the process.

Five central themes were identified in the interviews: 

  • More consistent policy dissemination and program administration is needed
  • Student exemptions and the application process are perceived as challenges for students
  • Key supports for successful student applications include carefully reviewing applications for potential exemptions, providing useful resources to students, and campus partnerships
  • Tracking policy changes is burdensome
  • Eliminating student rules and treating students as regular clients would be more equitable

The researchers found that CalFresh rules are challenging for students as well as the county agency staff.

Also, eligibility requirements, written over 50 years ago, are based on the assumption that college students are supported by middle-class families.

The research supports simplifying the student CalFresh process to increase participation for eligible students, especially for historically underrepresented racial and ethnic groups and low-income students for whom equitable access to CalFresh benefits is critical.

“Once students get confused or don't know what they need to do, they don't follow through with their application,” one CalFresh eligibility worker told the researchers.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, some federal and state requirements were waived or relaxed for students.

“The timing of this study resulted in a natural experiment since COVID-19-related SNAP modifications streamlined the student application process and reduced administrative burden,” Martinez noted. “These modifications alleviated some challenges discussed by county workers, confirming existing opinions to eliminate the student rules.”

Ritchie said, “We hope our research informs policy to remove some of the barriers so students no longer have as much difficulty getting the food they need.”

This study was funded by the California State Legislature, which provided funding to the University of California to address students' basic needs (UC Basic Needs Initiative).

By Pamela S Kan-Rice
Author - Assistant Director, News and Information Outreach