California colleges rush to get more students on food assistance before pandemic rule ends
Most college students don’t qualify for CalFresh, California’s food stamps program, despite high rates of food insecurity. A pandemic-era rule that made it easier to get aid ends soon.
Students, add this to the to-do list between now and finals week: Apply for federal food assistance before the fast-approaching end of a rule that allows more folks to qualify.
Starting June 10, students whose families could not contribute a dollar to their education or who are approved for federal or state work-study programs will no longer be automatically eligible for CalFresh, the program formerly known as food stamps. Instead, students will have to seek those benefits through a stricter set of eligibility rules that limit how many low-income people enrolled in college can receive food aid.
The imminent deadline — the result of a federal health order sunsetting — is putting pressure on California campus officials, both public and private, and state agencies to inform students these benefits are ending soon.
Everyone — advocates, researchers, college social service coordinators and county officials — says the time is now for students to apply. Seeking the aid before the rules tighten again could buy a previously ineligible student as much as a year of time on food assistance, they say. A qualifying student could get up to $281 a month to pay for groceries.
Beyond a matter of basic necessity, ensuring students aren’t hungry has clear academic benefits, including higher college graduation rates, studies have shown.
“There is a scramble right now,” said Brandi Simonaro of CalState Chico’s Center for Healthy Communities, which holds a state contract to help students apply for food assistance on 48 mostly public college campuses statewide.
Part of the challenge, she said, is misinformation among campus officials about CalFresh’s complex and changing eligibility rules; she fears the confusion will discourage students from applying.
Marcia Garcia guides students through the CalFresh application process at UC Berkeley and sees firsthand how pressed for time they are, especially for those with jobs or children.
“I think there’s always this concern, right, that not everyone is going to learn about these resources in time,” she said.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, an estimated 127,000 California college students received CalFresh, even though anywhere from 416,471 to 689,233 students were likely eligible.
The rush to get the word out underscores advocates’ long-held frustration with the federal government, which they say blocks many students from vital food aid — a policy holdover from the 1970s when most college students in the U.S. were thought to be well-off.
Today, far more students from low-income families attend college — and need food assistance that most don’t get. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, an estimated 127,000 California college students received CalFresh, even though anywhere from 416,471 to 689,233 students were likely eligible, according to a 2020 state report that relied on 2018-2019 data. In the same year, according to the California Student Aid Commission, 1 in 3 students reported experiencing food insecurity in any given month.
The low participation rate has made college students a group of particular focus for policymakers and anti-hunger advocates in California, which already struggles to deliver food aid to all who qualify. Only about 70% of Californians who are eligible for food stamps receive them, compared to about 82% for the rest of the nation.
There’s evidence the expanded eligibility rules led to more college students receiving CalFresh. In December 2020, a month before the temporary new rules kicked in, nearly 120,000 college students in California were receiving CalFresh. By September 2021, that number grew to over 140,000, according to the California Department of Social Services, citing its most recent data in an email to CalMatters.
The department said it lacks the data to know how many students will lose CalFresh benefits once the health emergency ends.
The expanded eligibility triggered a huge jump in student applications. On the 48 campuses where the Center for Healthy Communities works, the number of students applying for food aid jumped from 2,963 in late summer of 2020 to 12,051 a year later and just over 16,000 in late summer 2022.
But because of complex eligibility rules, students often have their food aid applications denied by county welfare departments, which administer CalFresh on behalf of the state. For example, Simonaro said the state told the center only about half the applications it has helped students submit are approved.
Food assistance eligibility
Under a 1977 federal law, most college students are ineligible for food assistance by default.
It’s a rule based on outdated notions of who’s attending college, advocates say.
“There was definitely an image of traditional college students … that they were 18- and 19-year-olds right out of high school, with no dependents being supported by their parents even if they weren’t living with them,” said Elizabeth Lower-Basch, deputy executive director for policy at the left-leaning Center for Law and Social Policy.
Students who are enrolled in classes at least half-time and are between the ages of 18 and 49 can normally only get food aid if they work at least 20 hours a week — an amount of time that some research says ultimately hurts students academically.
Or, they must satisfy one of roughly a dozen narrow exemptions, such as being a single parent, having a disability or enrolling in specific academic and workforce training programs. Students also then need to meet the program’s regular income requirements: a maximum of about $27,000 a year for a single-person household, not including grants, loans and scholarships, and then a second income test.
The patchwork of eligibility criteria and exemptions hits community college students in particular.
Some students receiving the state’s main financial aid award — the Cal Grant — qualify for food assistance if they also meet income and campus meal plan requirements. California pays for the awards with some federal welfare funds, and anyone receiving a welfare-funded program can also get CalFresh.
But the shortcut only applies to Cal Grant students who attend a California State University, University of California or a private college — and not to the vast majority of community college students. That’s because only Cal Grant awards that cover tuition are funded with welfare dollars. Cal Grants for community college students don’t pay for tuition but instead provide them cash awards, which don’t qualify for federal welfare funding. Federal rules say financial aid can lead to CalFresh eligibility only if the aid covers tuition and course fees. As a result, most community college students can get CalFresh through the Cal Grant only after they transfer to a four-year university in California.
California lawmakers could change this, a Century Foundation researcher argued in a 2020 report, by using federal welfare funds to pay for the Promise Grant, a tuition waiver nearly 1 million community college students receive. That would allow those students easy eligibility for food assistance if they also meet the income rules.
California has added ways for students to qualify for aid. For example, a 2021 law requires campuses to tell the state which academic programs could boost students’ abilities to get jobs — programs that would allow students to get CalFresh. To date, thousands of programs are on the list.
Chico State senior Jocelyn Gonzalez Fierros only learned she was eligible for CalFresh because the university emailed her to say she met one of the pandemic-induced expanded eligibility criteria.
She’s still receiving CalFresh this year, but under a different exception: Because her parents’ incomes rose, she’s no longer getting the state financial aid, but still qualifies for food assistance through her job as an outreach coordinator for the Center for Healthy Communities.
“It’s very confusing just because your situation can change within a course of six months,” Fierros said.
Researchers and college aid administrators said beleaguered counties can create additional roadblocks for students seeking aid.
Because county agencies are funded based on how many people already receive aid and not how many apply, welfare officials say they’re understaffed for surges in student applications, which can take longer to process and are harder to qualify because of the student eligibility rules.
It took Raksha Rajeshmohan, 19, two tries to get CalFresh, despite easily qualifying because she works two part-time jobs on top of taking a full courseload at UC Berkeley.
The second-year public health student applied for CalFresh online after hearing about it from a friend. She had trouble her first attempt. A letter from the agency scheduling a phone interview arrived a week late; she said the phone call never came. After waiting more than a month, she got a denial letter for turning in images rather than documents of her paystubs.
An agency spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment.
Rajeshmohan was approved for CalFresh this January after turning in more detailed documentation. The roughly $250 a month she gets allows her to pick more nutritious, costlier foods at the store, and pack lunches rather than skipping them.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if students studying other things or who don’t have knowledge about this program aren’t as motivated to apply and see it through,” she said. “I think the way that the system is laid out is quite confusing.”
Once a student receives CalFresh under the expanded criteria, they’ll continue getting the food aid until they have to recertify their eligibility — usually after about a year.
But students who have already enrolled under the expanded criteria will need to recertify that they’re eligible under the more limited list starting this July. It’s likely that many students will lose eligibility, but the department of social services did not know just how many would drop off the aid.
“If they don’t meet another exemption and are still looked at as a student (when it’s time to recertify eligibility) then they will no longer be eligible, which is really scary,” Simonaro said.
While the state cannot change federal eligibility rules, it is working to ease the process of renewing or applying for CalFresh.
Already 45 counties are accepting public benefits applications, including for food aid, on a new website called BenefitsCal.com with a student-friendly section as well. By November, all 58 counties are expected to be using the site. For the first time, applicants can schedule appointments with their county case managers digitally, message them online, update their address or report a change in their circumstances.
The website also allows users to upload and receive all their necessary documents to maintain their eligibility.
Moving more of the process online should help students, Garcia of UC Berkeley said. Last week she met a student who for six months had been approved for benefits but didn’t know it. The student never got a call or letter from the county informing them of their benefits.
CalMatters is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.