By Fran Kritz
Dozens of freshmen headed to Humboldt State University this fall will have access to something most many of their classmates take for granted: a credit card they can swipe in exchange for food.
During the spring semester a new debit machine was installed at the university’s College Creek Marketplace, which lets the market now accept electronic benefit transfer (EBT) debit cards for many grocery purchases.
EBT was formerly known as food stamps, and now called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP. The marketplace is the only campus food outlet, for now, that accepts the cards. And Humboldt State is one of the few campuses anywhere in the U.S. that lets students, faculty and staff use an EBT card for grocery purchases.
“Without EBT point of sale access, campus food vendors can’t take the card as payment, and many students with the benefit have little or no other funds to pay for food while at school,” says Jennifer Maguire, an assistant professor of social work at Humboldt, and an author of a recently released report on student food insecurity on the campus.
Humboldt’s EBT initiative is just one of several college food initiatives across the country and throughout California aimed at connecting at-risk students with affordable or free food.
And enough programs around the country have launched that a resource organization now exists: the College and University Food Bank Alliance. Other food programs on California campuses include partnerships with church and community food pantries and meal programs. At Fresno State, for example, students at risk of going hungry can access meal points by students who are happy to share, find food at a campus pantry open Monday through Friday and download an app that sends out an alert if food served at a campus event is now available to “after event guests.”
Some of the food programs for students now in place at California State University schools were prompted by Maguire helping Humboldt students sign up for CalFresh—of keen interest to the young professor because she relied on food stamps for herself and her young family when she was in graduate school in Corvallis just a couple of years ago. Maguire was very surprised to find many more students applying for the benefit than anticipated, which prompted Humboldt to open a food pantry and free farm stand that together serve about 500 to 600 students per week, out of 8,000 on Humboldt’s campus.
Just how many California State University students are food insecure is “unknown and undocumented” according to the chancellor’s office, but the chancellor recently commissioned a survey on all the university’s campuses that will ask students about both food insecurity and homelessness with the goal of creating evidence-based programs that meet students’ needs.
Maguire’s recent report found that over half of about 1500 Humboldt students who replied to a campus survey say they face “low food security” — a USDA term defined as “reduced quality, variety, or desirability of diet” or “very low food security,” defined as “disrupted eating patterns and reduced food intake.”
Those definitions fit Mercedes Conley, 20, an incoming senior at Humboldt who moved off campus this year to save money but found rents high and hard to afford despite an on-campus job and one at McDonald’s.
Conley says she found herself “cutting everything in order to make sure my rent and bills were paid” and that “without a car, and [bus] schedules that clashed with my busy schedule, getting affordable food at grocery stores was impossible…and I relied heavily on food pantries.” Says California State University Chancellor Timothy P. White: “Students should be focused on their education – but this focus is hard to maintain for those who do not know…when they will eat their next meal.”
And while community college students generally have lower tuition fees, a 2014 study on food insecurity at ten U.S. community colleges, including three San Diego campuses, by researchers at the University of Wisconsin found that of 4,300 students surveyed, one in five had gone hungry in the last thirty days because they didn’t have money to buy food–even though a majority of those in the study had both financial aid and jobs.
“A college education is a great tool for overcoming poverty, but students have to be able to escape the conditions of poverty long enough to finish their degrees or we’re wasting their time,” wrote two of the study’s authors in a New York Times op-ed late last year.
As of this year all nine University of California campuses have a food initiative for students at risk, including pantries and programs that let students donate some of their unused meal points to fellow students. The initiatives are funded in part by a $75,000 grant per campus from the office of University President Janet Napolitano last year. Ruben Canedo, the Research Mobilization Coordinator at the University’s Centers for Educational Equity Excellence, says initially information on students without enough to eat came from financial aid and other counselors in whom students confided, prompting the university to add the question: “how often do you skip meals to save money” to the 2010 edition of a student survey conducted every three years. System wide, says Canedo, the answer was 23 percent, or 1 in 5 students and “campus conversations began immediately.”
The number of UC food insecure students jumped to 26 percent in later surveys and a new survey conducted last spring is due to be released by the university during 2016, along with a list of campus food insecurity solutions. Last January, UC held its second California Higher Education Food Summit to share ideas on solving student hunger. The summit was held at UC Irvine, which opened its first student food pantry in the fall of 2015.
While there have always been “starving students” says Jessica Bartholow, legislative advocate in the Sacramento office of the Western Center on Law and Poverty, recent developments have exacerbated the problem including tuition increases since the recession, federal caps on the amount students can borrow for college costs and many people still unable to find jobs since the recession, pushing them to return to school for retraining though without all the funds they need for living expenses.
“And, let’s face it, California, and especially campuses in urban areas are expensive places to live,” says Sarah Palmer De Frank, advocacy manager at the California Association of Food Banks in Oakland. “Students often don’t think about affording food, and find themselves coming up short when they start at the campuses,” says UC’s Canedo.“We’re making sure now that students understand the full cost of tuition including living expenses.”
The CSU report and the UC summit are expected to identify new, sweeping ideas to address hunger on campus, and the two university systems plan to share information. New initiatives could include adding meal plans or CalFresh benefits to scholarships, providing subsidized and free meals and snacks on campus, and adding more EBT card access on campuses.
Recent legislation is also expected to expand the number of students who qualify for CalFresh. Eligibility is limited to students who are working 20 hours or more per week, a rule put in place to keep parents who can afford to support their kids from putting them on the CalFresh program when they get to college. There are exemptions to the rule, including students on federal or state work study programs, students with dependent children and students enrolled in certain job training programs. The new law, now being implemented, requires the California Department of Social Services to establish a list of the qualifying training and work programs and to work with counties to better identify and verify participation in a program.
And Assemblywoman Shirley Weber (D-District 79) has proposed legislation that would expand CalFresh still further including:
• Requiring any university or college receiving public funds to accept EBT cards.
• Require campuses to participate in their county’s CalFresh Restaurant Meal program which provides meals to disabled or homeless students.
• Establish a program to support improved coordination between campus food pantries and California food banks.
But Humboldt’s Maguire says campuses also have to “reduce the stigma about using CalFresh” and reframe it as an entitlement if they meet eligibility requirements. “Really, we need to work to have it considered as a standard part of the financial aid package for those who qualify,” says Maguire.
That is more likely these days when so many campuses are framing campus hunger as a global and sustainability issue. At the University of California, in fact, the campus student food security programs are based at the university’s Global Food Initiative, launched in 2014.
And Maguire predicts that programs at CSU will follow Humboldt’s example of going far beyond handing a can of food to students in need. At Humboldt, says Maguire, there are “opportunities to complete paid internships, build community partnerships, participate in events planning, conduct research and community projects, advocate for campus policy change, and help with grant proposal writing that not only work towards ending [a student’s] own food insecurity, but begins to make it easier for all students on campus to have greater access to enough food.”
Maguire adds that this wider look at the issue also gives students a chance to learn healthy food habits for the rest of their lives. “We don’t want to replicate models from the past where people with low-incomes were given commodities that were unhealthy and lead to significant health issues.”
“We need to listen to conversations among students and we need to look at something more sweeping,” agrees Jessica Bartholow, whose parents were homeless when she entered college about fifteen years ago, funded by five scholarships as well as student loans. “The first time in a decade that I ate three meals a day was when I attended college,” says Bartholow. “The liberty of having milk at breakfast was profound.”
Bartholow says so many of the students at California campuses are the first in their families to attend college and have already overcome obstacles just to be accepted by the colleges. “A more sweeping approach, a meal plan for every student who is eligible for a scholarship, for example, will let students know they are welcome there and their achievement is of value to the institution.”
This article appeared on the California Health Report website on August 8, 2016.