Young lives. Old problems. New solutions.

California boosts efforts to stamp out hunger on campus

Two-thirds of community college students have trouble paying for food, according to a new 24-state study. California schools are combining federal aid with campus food pantries and other programs to help.

Jessica Mendoza/The Christian Science Monitor
At Chico State University's campus pantry, students can get free groceries, which are donated or purchased by the university at a reduced price. They can also find out if they're eligible for CalFresh.

Anthony Hiseley was determined to stay in college without turning to his family for support.

His mother, an at-home nurse who cares for his ailing sister and stepfather, couldn't afford to fund his education. So Mr. Hiseley relied on a combination of financial aid, federal loans, and what jobs he could snag through the year to pay for tuition, rent, and food. His sophomore year, he sold his car to pay his bills. He would order water when his friends went out to eat. Finally, he made a habit of missing not only breakfast, but also lunch.

“I would skip meals until 4 in the afternoon,” says Hiseley, a health services administration major at California State University, Chico.

Then, his junior year, his university helped enroll him in CalFresh, California’s version of the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Hiseley found he was eligible for nearly $200 a month for groceries.

“I’m not saying I have a lot of money,” says Hiseley, now a senior. “But I’m not stressed about every month’s bills and rent as I used to be.”

With a new study of 33,000 students in 24 states – the broadest study of its kind – showing that two-thirds of community college students have trouble paying for food – the stereotype of the “starving college student” is more literal in America than many people ever realized. Indeed, food pantries are becoming almost as common on campuses as bookstores. More colleges have realized that it takes more than a cafeteria meal plan to keep today's students from going hungry.

To combat this, higher-education institutions across California are working this year to expand CalFresh enrollment among their students. The Cal State system, for example, is expanding its program to 10 more campuses. The enterprise comes on the heels of legislation passed in 2014 that broadens eligibility requirements for the program and has seen buy-in from not only Cal State but the University of California and state community college systems – all of which have been at the forefront of efforts to provide students with the wraparound services they need for stability.

The convergence of legislative action, campus activism, and academic interest suggests there’s a broad shift in the way California is approaching the issue, says Jessica Bartholow, a legislative advocate and expert on federal antihunger policy at the Western Center on Law and Poverty. 

“If we’re going to put federal dollars into educating our young people, why would we let something as simple as lack of food undermine that investment?” she says. “It’s something we can solve, if we do it right.”

Old myths, new realities

Like many issues facing higher education today, food insecurity is linked to the rising cost of going to college, education experts say. The cost of attending a public university has gone up by 54 percent since 2000, according to research by Sara Goldrick-Rab, a professor of higher education policy at Temple University in Philadelphia and co-author of the new report.

In California, tuition and fees at public four-year institutions have more than doubled since 2004. In January, the UC system approved a rate hike that raised tuition and fees for in-state students to $12,630 a year.

None of that includes food, housing, gas, or other living expenses.

At the same time, the student population is changing. About 74 percent of today’s college students are considered nontraditional, meaning they go without parental financial support or have their own dependents to provide for. First-generation or undocumented students often fall into these categories.

“We know we need more people participating in postsecondary education,” says William Tierney, a professor of higher education at the University of Southern California. “Students are going to come from traditionally underserved populations.”

At the K-12 level, there’s a general consensus that hunger and poverty are linked to poor outcomes and high dropout rates. A similar reality exists for college students. Data from the past year show that about 4 in 10 UC students lacked regular access to nutritious, high-quality food. Another study found that nearly a quarter of Cal State’s 475,000 students were going hungry.

“We wouldn’t let a three-year-old go without eating,” says Jenny Breed, a health education specialist at the Center for Healthy Communities (CHC), a research nonprofit at Chico State that’s led the way in CalFresh outreach for the Cal State system. “But we’ll let a 19-year-old?”

By integrating CalFresh outreach into existing programs, educators are hoping to move past outdated stereotypes and contribute to a broad solution.

“There’s this myth that being in college [means] eating ramen noodles.... It’s seen as a rite of passage,” says Ronn Hallett, a professor of education at the University of the Pacific in Stockton, Calif. “I think that covers up the real traumas and experiences of students who aren’t eating for days at a time or living out of their cars.”

Jessica Mendoza/The Christian Science Monitor
Hector Martinez, a student at Chico State University, points out his favorite products at the campus food pantry on Tuesday, March 7. Mr. Martinez, a junior, says he relied on the pantry for groceries when times were tough. When things improved for him, he became a student assistant to spread the word about the university's food resources. "I want to give back," he says. "I have students come and tell me, 'Can I just grab anything?' I'm like, 'Anything. And come back as often as you need to.' "

Beyond Band-aids

At Chico State, a leader in student enrollment in CalFresh, staff are assigned to the campus food pantry, where they offer pre-screening and application services to students coming by. The pantry stays stocked with donations and goods purchased by the university at reduced prices.

“The pantry is short term; they can get an immediate bag of groceries,” says Kathleen Moroney, who works with the office of student affairs at Chico State. “Then they get a long-term solution [through CalFresh].”

Integrating CalFresh outreach into existing services has been crucial to efforts to expand enrollment at Chico State. Since 2006, the California Department of Social Services (DSS), which runs benefits programs for the state, has been working with the university to enroll needy locals in CalFresh. Part of the goal was to improve participation rates in SNAP – California ranks second to last among states, costing the state billions in lost economic activity, some economists say.

As campus hunger drew increasing media attention, it became clear to policymakers and administrators that college students were a largely untapped population that could stand to benefit from CalFresh. By 2014, Chico State had not only an established relationship with the DSS, but also a process for recruiting students to help with screening and application. Today the university provides training and guidance to the 10 other CSU campuses that joined the CalFresh campaign in the fall.

Many of the campuses – which stretch from Sacramento to San Bernardino – already have some food security initiatives in place. Fresno State has one of the largest campus pantries in California and provides complimentary dining hall meals for students in need. They have a mobile app that pings users when a catered event on campus has leftovers available for pickup.

CSU Long Beach also has its own mobile app and food pantry, and an emergency fund and housing services for students in crisis situations. To supplement the CalFresh push, the university set up an on-campus mini-market that stocks SNAP-eligible products. 

“I feel we’ve done a really good job of [sending the message] that if you are in need of assistance, we will serve you – just like the health center or career development,” says Jessica Medina, who coordinates the food security project at Fresno State.

But incorporating CalFresh outreach and bolstering that with education programs like Chico State’s “Adulting 101” seminar – which teaches students simple recipes and budgeting tricks – takes the solution to the next level.

“Before I received this benefit, I was pretty much starving myself every day,” says Angelica Chue, another Chico State student.

She signed up for CalFresh last fall and found she was eligible for $194 a month for groceries, the maximum allotment for an individual household. She also picked up ways to prepare the food she could now afford to buy.

“I make salad. I really like Mediterranean-style food, I cook that a lot,” Ms. Chue says. “It has made a very big difference.”

“With the food pantry, you’re putting a Band-Aid to [to the problem],” Ms. Medina says. “With education and resources, you’re getting rid of some of those things that are causing this.”

Jessica Mendoza/The Christian Science Monitor
Chico State students man the CalFresh booth at the Wednesday farmers market in Chico, Calif., on March 8. The students prepare samples of a burrito that uses in-season ingredients like kale. Shoppers can get a copy of the recipe and find out if they're eligible for benefits through CalFresh, the state version of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

At the farmers market

On a bright March morning, about a dozen vendors set up tents at the Wednesday farmers’ market outside downtown Chico. Wares included organic coffee, fresh juices, and locally grown produce. Manning one stall were two Chico State students who were putting together samples of a kale and black bean burrito. Copies of the recipe sat on the table. In front of them hung a large sign that declared in Spanish and English: “Use your EBT [electronic benefits transfer] card here.”

Throughout the morning, Breed says, shoppers can come to the booth to find out if they’re eligible for CalFresh benefits and get help applying on the spot. Those already enrolled can use their electronic benefits transfer or EBT cards to purchase fruit, vegetables, meat, even coffee beans from the market’s vendors.

The market also eases the sting of needing to apply for a benefits program. The friend who urged Hiseley, the Chico State senior, to enroll in CalFresh brought him there first so he could see for himself the food he could buy.

“It’s a lot more comfortable going up to somebody who’s your own age, who kind of gets how you feel about things, who probably has the program and the benefits themselves,” Hiseley says.

Today, the CHC hires and trains dozens of interns and student staff every semester to help fellow students enroll. They assist applicants with prescreening, filling out forms, and sorting through documents. They explain how the program works: Beneficiaries can receive anywhere between $16 to $194 a month for groceries. (The EBT card can’t be used for hot and prepared meals.) They also send text reminders for deadlines and interviews.

When Hiseley became an intern for the CHC, Hiseley says he also began a lot of his outreach efforts there, telling friends, “This is a way for you to get better food for yourself,” he says.

'Something we can solve'

The CSU system isn’t the only one embracing CalFresh enrollment – or the notion that food insecurity is an issue to be attacked from all angles. At the University of California, staff and administrators have also begun to think about food insecurity in institutional terms.

“We want to address the structural challenge,” says Ruben Canedo, coordinator for the Center for Educational Equity and Excellence at UC Berkeley. “How do we shift our approach to the student experience to have an equal system so they have what they need to be food and housing secure?”

UC now works with Code for America – a national nonprofit that develops digital tools to improve services – to streamline the online CalFresh application process. The goal is to make the whole experience as easy as possible: Snap a photo of a required document, upload it to the Code for America site, and finish the application in 10 to 15 minutes.

Both CSU and UC are in conversations with the state’s community college system to address food and housing insecurity on even broader levels. There’s also a push to collect more data on the issue and develop new avenues for research.

Advocates have also made inroads at the policy level. In 2014, then-Rep. Nancy Skinner introduced Assembly Bill 1930, which made it easier for students to qualify for CalFresh benefits. In January, A.B. 1747 went into effect, expanded access to the state Restaurant Meal Program – which allows eligible disabled, elderly, and homeless CalFresh recipients to use their EBT card for hot meals – to include campus vendors. The bill also pledges to match funds raised by public colleges and universities for CalFresh enrollment with dollars from the US Department of Agriculture.

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Still, all these efforts remain in the early stages. What works and what doesn’t still needs to be assessed, and success is not a certainty, says Clare Cady, co-founder of the College and University Food Bank Alliance, which has more than 460 member schools around the United States.  

“We’re at a place now where maybe we need to focus on what’s effective in addressing the issue. We don’t know that yet,” she says.

For now, students like Chue are just happy not to be hungry: “I can prep my meals every day. I can have carrots or something in my bag and have not to worry about anything. Just eat.”

Editor's note: This article was updated to correct the number of students in the California State university system.

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