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Next time you walk past college students in your town or see a university campus on the news, I encourage you to consider this: Roughly one out of every three college or university students in the U.S. is food insecure.
This is according to The Hope Center’s #RealCollege survey of 195,000 students across 42 states—and their results are sobering: 39 percent of students at two-year colleges and 29 percent of students at four-year colleges experience food insecurity, and one-third of two-year college students and one-quarter of four-year college students reported having skipped or cut down on the size of their meals. And this is while they are taking classes, and likely holding down one or several jobs and internships, and maintaining social and professional connections. Or taking care of family members.
And these challenges are sharply accentuated for Black and Indigenous folks. The Hope Center finds that 75 percent of Indigenous and 70 percent of Black students have faced some degree of food insecurity, housing insecurity, or homelessness.
It’s no surprise that things grew worse during COVID-19. Research from the journal Nutrients found that, throughout the pandemic, hunger among students in higher education spiked. A stunning 59.6 percent of students reported that they became less food-secure as a result of COVID-19. This is a crisis and it’s been overlooked for a long time.
But let’s talk about the solutions. Qualifying for food benefits through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (or SNAP; formerly food stamps) is extraordinarily complex—and until recently, college students had to jump through even more hoops.
Before the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021 passed last year, college students who were seeking SNAP had to not only meet all the preexisting eligibility criteria but also one additional requirement, like caring for a child, working a part-time job, or completing hours in a state- or federally-financed work-study program. The act temporarily expands SNAP access to now include college students who have an expected family contribution of US$0 or are eligible to participate in a work-study program: They only need to be eligible and do not need to have already completed their hours. These are key differences that make things a little easier.
But—there’s always a “but” with this kind of thing, isn’t there? This expansion is temporary. It’s designated to expire one month after the termination of the public health emergency, which is currently set to end in mid-October. Luckily, legislators like food superhero Congressmember Jim McGovern are sounding the alarm on the impending hunger cliff that could result if action isn’t taken on these extended benefits. I’m hopeful that the Department of Health and Human Services will step in and extend the expansion to keep the benefits going for folks who need them.
Last week, I was talking with one of my food heroines, Kathleen Merrigan of the Swette Center for Sustainable Food Systems at Arizona State University. She also served as Deputy Secretary of Agriculture during the Obama Administration and is a member of the Food Tank Academic Advisory Group. We were discussing the College Student Hunger Act of 2021, which would help expand access to SNAP to certain low-income students who are employed a minimum of 10 hours per week during the school year, are eligible for a federal Pell Grant, have an expected family contribution of $0, or are independent.
“Some people say people who can’t afford food shouldn’t be in college. I couldn’t disagree more,” she told me. “The smart move is to get students the food they need to pursue a college diploma and the career opportunities it provides.”
She’s absolutely right. None should struggle to get the education they deserve because they can’t afford to eat. Food Tankers like you already know how inspired I am by youth movements around the world. And, frankly, supporting college students of all ages and all cultures in accessing healthy and affordable food is a cornerstone to a better food system. The farmers, scientists, writers, advocates, chefs, urban planners, teachers, and more at our colleges are some of the many visionary and hardworking people who will build a better world.
Thankfully, plenty of amazing organizations are already stepping up to support students. Swipe Out Hunger, a nonprofit dedicated to eliminating hunger on college campuses, is advocating for the passage of the Hunger Free Campus Bill, which sends funding to public colleges that are addressing student hunger on campus. This has already been adopted in eight states and introduced in seven more. Plus, the Food Research and Action Center is advocating for additional legislation, including the Enhanced Access To SNAP Act—or EATS Act, which I absolutely love—to permanently address the inequitable college SNAP access rules for low-income students. And the Hope Center, whose research I mentioned earlier, has pointed out that federal SNAP expansions must also include state-level action to clarify eligibility, since states also have an impact on who can receive SNAP benefits.
College students already face so many hurdles on top of trying to get a quality education, and food insecurity shouldn’t be one of them. It also shouldn’t be a partisan issue. I sincerely hope Congress can act on a national level and states and cities can act on more local levels—and I hope you’ll help out, too. As always, you can reach out to your legislators, and you can also get involved with organizations on campuses near you by helping with food recovery or donating money or food to pantries on campus.
As I’ve said before, we all need to find ways to use our unique skills to fight the good fight. Let me know what you’ll step up and do—email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Photo courtesy of Ryan Jacobson, Unsplash