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Hungry College Students Missing Out on SNAP Benefits

You might not think of college students going hungry but in fact many do, including thousands of low-income students who might qualify for federal food-buying assistance but don’t know it’s available or think they would have to be employed fulltime to qualify.

A group of U.S. senators led by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA)  is trying to change that. They’re asking Agriculture Secretary Thomas Vilsack to issue new guidance clarifying students’ eligible for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly known as SNAP, formerly called Food Stamps.

“College students represent the future of America. Not only is it critical that we don’t saddle students with debt, but the Administration should also use its executive authority to ensure low-income students have the information they need to access SNAP and other federal benefits to help them stay focused and successful in their studies,” the senators wrote. “USDA has the authority to change that.”

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, a GAO report found that thousands of low-income students who should qualify for SNAP had never accessed those benefits, in large part because of the complexity of SNAP eligibility rules.

The GAO report also concluded that college students experiencing hunger have a harder time succeeding in school and found that nearly two million students at risk of going hungry were potentially eligible for SNAP but did not report receiving benefits in 2016.

COVID-19 made it worse

The senators said that the COVID-19 pandemic has worsened food insecurity among college students and exacerbated racial disparities in hunger.

A nationwide survey of students in fall 2020 by the Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice found that 70% of Black and 70% of American Indian or Alaska Native students experienced food insecurity, housing insecurity, or homelessness — rates substantially higher than their white peers.

The senators specifically call on USDA to issue guidance to clarify that the following groups are eligible for SNAP benefits without being required to work:

  • low-income students who have been approved for federal or state work study;
  • low-income students enrolled in community college and in four-year college programs that are career-focused or in paths resulting in high employability after graduation; and
  • low-income students with disabilities, including students with learning disabilities and serious medical conditions.

“While we work on securing legislation to both make permanent and expand the [Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act] student provisions, we strongly urge USDA to use its authority to expeditiously issue guidance that clarifies the student SNAP eligibility rules, which would expand on the Biden Administration’s actions to ensure students have access to federal nutrition resources to meet their basic needs,” the senators concluded.

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