Addressing Food Insecurity Will Pay Off for States
In order to achieve their ambitious attainment goals, most states will need to rapidly increase credential production. Increasing attainment improves a state’s fiscal outlook, increases individual wages, improves individual health and life outcomes, and increases civic engagement. However, our research suggests that most states’ goals will remain out of reach unless their plans focus on improving outcomes for historically underserved students and adult learners. These groups of students often face unique hurdles including higher levels of basic needs insecurity. Creating an education system that provides opportunities to all learners, and thus helping to meet the social and economic needs of states, will require targeted efforts that provide students with adequate supports that are necessary for postsecondary success.
Basic needs supports include a patchwork of programs administered by myriad agencies. There are federal, state, county, and city programs that all separately seek to meet food, housing, and transportation needs of residents. The administrative burden of accessing and using these programs is daunting for many individuals thus preventing them from obtaining needed services. In an attempt to understand basic needs issues, we opted to focus on one singular area in a new issue brief: food insecurity. Particularly, we explored the current limitations of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) for college students and how these limitations could be addressed from a policy perspective..
SNAP is a federally-funded program to provide lower-income individuals financial support to purchase food. The program comes with various restrictions on what can be purchased and from where these items can be purchased. While lower-income individuals are generally eligible, students are not. For students to be eligible they must meet one of the exception criteria. These include being under the age of 18, over the age of 49, being enrolled less than half time, or caring for a child, among other potential exceptions. During the pandemic additional exceptions were made to reduce the hardship of COVID-19, but when the federal government determines the public health emergency is over, these exceptions will end and many students will be cut off from SNAP benefits.
Although SNAP is federally funded, states administer the funds and have some leeway in setting the criteria for eligibility. For example, states determine what constitutes an eligible education and training (E&T) program for SNAP E&T benefits, which typically refers to a specific jobs training program that leads directly to employment. However, eight states have included community college programs in the E&T designation, thus expanding access to SNAP. In this way, states can independently act to alleviate food insecurity among students. This is an important opportunity given that many students stand to lose benefits at the end of the federally determined public health crisis.
While SNAP is a federally funded program that addresses food insecurity, individual campuses have also proactively addressed the issue. Food pantries have become commonplace on campus to allow food insecure students to obtain groceries. Many institutions also have meal sharing programs where students’ unused meal plan allocations can be redistributed to hungry students. Not only are campuses building out these supports, but some states are joining the Hunger-Free Campus movement and mandating institutions provide these types of services. Thus far four states have joined.
In addition to food-specific programs, there have been important innovations in wraparound services on campus. For example, the City University of New York’s ASAP program provides students with transportation benefits, additional financial aid, and free textbooks. ASAP has been shown to improve retention and graduation rates, so much so that Ithaka S+R has been working with ASAP leaders to help expand this program to other campuses. Similar programs, like UC Santa Cruz’s Slug Support also provide services that help students meet a range of basic needs issues. These types of programs complement other efforts institutions are making to help lower-income students and adult learners who may be facing a multitude of issues. For example, the Northeast Ohio Comeback Compact is helping to provide debt forgiveness for students with stranded credits, and Georgia State’s Panther Retention Grant provides emergency grants to students who have unexpected expenses. These programs, which help lower-income students, should be considered as complements to extended SNAP benefits that provide necessary resources to food insecure students who may be returning to campus or facing unexpected financial challenges.
While more students are receiving SNAP benefits due to COVID-19 modifications, these will disappear unless they are codified into law. There are as many as 1.5 million food insecure students at community colleges who are not receiving SNAP benefits. By modifying E&T definitions, states can ensure more students are eligible for SNAP. Finally, states have the ability to provide resources to and support other state-wide and campus-based programs that help students tackle food, housing, and transportation insecurities. We suggest states join the Hunger-Free Campus initiative to help tackle hunger. We also believe states should fund robust expansions of ASAP-like programs that have proven benefits for students and can help states increase postsecondary attainment.