Why we need to strike the SNAP student eligibility rule

By: Sophia Lee

The National School Lunch Program makes sense. This federally assisted meal program provides students with low-cost or free lunches at school each day, with around 30 million K-12 students in public schools eligible for the program. What doesn’t make sense is the fact that there are no comparable food programs for college students. Once students enter high education, they lose access to federal food programs — this shouldn’t be the case. 

Before I began working as the Spring Advocacy Intern at Challah for Hunger, I didn’t realize how big of an issue campus food insecurity was. It seemed fairly commonplace to watch students swipe each other into dining halls, use meal points to buy food when accounts ran low, or eat cereal for all three meals because it was cheap or convenient. I didn’t realize that all of these things were actually indicative of a much larger issue, that of campus food insecurity. Beginning my work with Challah for Hunger and learning more about food insecurity in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic has broadened my understanding of the issue, as well as helped me see things in the way of possible solutions. From a report out of Temple University’s Hope Center, we learned that, during the Fall 2020 semester, almost 3 in 5 students experienced basic needs insecurity. During this same time, Food insecurity impacted 39% of students at two-year institutions and 29% of students at four-year institutions, while 14% faced homelessness. This reality is disproportionately impacting students of color, with a 16 percentage point difference between black and white students in basic needs insecurity. These are statistics we need to take action to change. Higher education and educational attainment shouldn’t be made more difficult by food insecurity, and no student should be forced to choose between food and their education. 

In the same way that we know K-12 students need access to enough food to succeed as learners, so do college students. A solution worth advocating for is expanding access and eligibility to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) for college students. The SNAP program allows students to purchase food through the use of an electronic benefits transfer (EBT) card, which acts like a debit card, allowing them to purchase food on a regular basis, making it a more effective and sustainable option than campus food pantries. While the SNAP program presents a huge benefit to those who are enrolled, we know that 57% of students who are food insecure and potentially eligible for SNAP reported not receiving SNAP benefits in a 2019 GAO study. (6 from leave-behind). 

One of the biggest SNAP restrictions that prevents college students from receiving benefits states that college students enrolled at least half-time may not receive SNAP benefits unless they hold a qualifying exemption, the “SNAP student eligibility rule.” Some students hold this exemption through work-study, their course of study, or as a caregiver for a dependent child. However, many low-income college students only qualify for SNAP if they work 20 or more hours per week. This is an unrealistic restriction, as many students hold jobs with inconsistent hours, or are unable to work 20 hours/week, making it even more difficult for students who need SNAP benefits to qualify. 

A recent proposed bill in the Congress by Rep. Gomez called The proposed Enhanced Access to SNAP Act (EATS Act),  HR 1919, would permanently expand SNAP eligibility to nearly 3 million more college students by counting school as meeting work requirements for SNAP (4 leave-behind). Recognizing school as work will ensure that college students gain adequate access to the support they need, helping more students complete their degrees and pursue success. 

Moving the EATS Act forward is the first step towards ensuring that students are supported in higher education spaces and allowed to pursue degrees without worrying about where their meals will come from, or how they will support themselves. Join us for SNAP Into Action, from May 17-21st, so you can be part of the movement to end college hunger and move the EATS Act forward! I’m looking forward to this virtual wek of action because it will allow me to be part of this impactful solution on my own time, and in many different ways. I’m excited to learn more about what virtual advocacy looks like, and to connect with others who are passionate about supporting college students. Learn more about SNAP Into Action and see the full schedule of events at: https://www.campushunger.org/snap-into-action

Sophia Lee is the spring advocacy intern at Challah for Hunger. She’s graduating from Swarthmore with a degree in Psychology and Educational Studies and passions for early childhood development and literacy. She can be reached at [email protected]