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E198: Why SNAP pandemic benefits for college students should continue

Hosted by: Kelly Brownell (Duke)
March 7, 2023

There has been increasing attention to the issue of food insecurity among college students. Estimates vary, but to provide some perspective, one report found that a staggering 30% of all college students experienced food insecurity at some point in their college careers. In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the US temporarily extended the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits to college-aged students. But now this pandemic help is set to expire, impacting more than three million college students who have relied on this program for food. Today we speak with Heather Taylor, a former US delegate to the United Nations, and now managing director of Bread for the World. Having experienced severe food insecurity as an undergraduate student at Georgetown University, she now advocates for SNAP expansion for college students and other marginalized groups facing food insecurity.

Heather Taylor oversees Bread’s public policy and program divisions and operations as Managing Director. She is passionate about developing communications and advocacy strategies to organize and inspire faith communities, policymakers, and partners to engage in our mission to end hunger. Heather spent her career as a dedicated advocate lifting the voices of people who experience racial, gender, and economic injustice. She previously led organizations to increase access to legal and social services, as well as protect the rights and dignity of historically marginalized populations. She advocates to secure the economic rights of women in Sub-Saharan Africa as a fellow at International Justice Mission, a Christian nonprofit seeking to protect people in poverty from violence by transforming justice systems; and twice served on U.S. delegations headed by the UN Commission on the Status of Women to promote women’s political participation in emerging democratic societies. Heather holds a J.D. from the University of Iowa, a Master of Divinity from Wesley Theological Seminary and a B.S. from the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service.

Interview Summary

This is a really interesting topic and an important one because so many people are affected. I know recently there have been more surveys, more awareness to the issue and so finally people are beginning to pay attention. I know judging from the response at our own university, that universities are paying attention to this too. But let’s talk about the bigger picture of this: how the benefits at the national level are important. Tell me a little bit more about your work with Bread for the World.

Bread for the World is a faith-based organization that works alongside community groups and congregations across the country to urge primarily members of Congress to pass legislation that addresses hunger and poverty, both here in the United States and abroad as well. We spend a lot of our time equipping community groups so that they are empowered to speak with their members of Congress and talk about issues that are impacting them on the ground.

I mentioned in my introduction that you experienced food insecurity yourself as a college student. How has that impacted your work today?

It really underscores the conviction and the passion that I have around food insecurity, including the way in which it impacts college students. It’s such a critical time in one’s life, if one is blessed to have the opportunity to attend college, to shape their future, their career path. It’s essential that students are nourished and that they have the time necessary to invest in their studies, in some cases extracurricular activities, to perform well and to be able to compete in the market, to contribute to society as a whole. I have experienced firsthand how difficult it can be, what a struggle it is to worry about working on top of investing some 60 to 80 hours a week in one’s studies and classes alone, to worry about where one’s next meal is coming from. It’s really put me in a position to hopefully speak effectively firsthand about what one’s experience may be. But also, about what some of the practical solutions are to address food insecurity that individuals, and in this case college students themselves may be experiencing today.

That this problem occurs among college students might come as a surprise to some people because they think kids go to college, they pay for tuition and they pay for room and board and they get fed meals in their dorms and things like that. How does food insecurity come about?

So a lot of times the financial aid, be it student loans or other grants, goes toward college tuition, but not necessarily meal programs. Students are given options to choose meal programs. Some may be three to five meals per week. That was typically the program that I selected, not necessarily 14 to 21 square meals which is what is necessary to ensure that students are not food insecure. That is because these individuals simply may not be able to afford these meal programs. Secondly, while they may not be able to afford them, they could under certain laws be eligible to receive SNAP benefits, but oftentimes students aren’t even aware that they may be eligible. While they may have access to certain programs, like federal work study programs that are advertised when students are filling out FAFSA forms, for example, information around the SNAP program may not be as readily available. Because again, any support that they may receive through loans or grants is typically going toward tuition, perhaps books and other necessities, then food security is still an issue that is at stake.

Very helpful background. I know in addition to that, there are large numbers of individuals who don’t live on campus, like those who are attending community colleges or graduate and professional students who may not be living in dormitories and don’t have meal plans and things like that. It’s easy to see how so many people might be affected by this. Let’s talk about the SNAP changes at the onset of the pandemic. What can you tell us about that?

Sure. As a result of the expansions that were made available at the onset of the pandemic, students eligible for SNAP benefits could receive up to an additional $95 a month. This is a decent amount that can help put a dent in someone’s monthly food bill on a regular basis. The second important change that was made as a result of the expansion is that students who were eligible for SNAP, because they were eligible for the federal work study program did not necessarily have to participate in the work study program in order to get the SNAP benefit. Again, this is important because before the pandemic, students who participated in work study if they were attending school more than halftime they had to work at least 20 hours a week. We know through various studies that typically students are investing three hours in study time for every credit hour that they are signed up for in a given semester. Many students are enrolled for 12 credit hours. That means that they are studying approximately 36 hours on top of their 12 hours of classes. And so we see how they’re already investing a significant amount of time and then required to work an additional 20 hours. And so when we’re looking at students who are spending some 50, 60 hours and in my case personally, because I had to register for 15 credit hours, up to 80 hours a week. It creates a highly stressed environment for students to work in. At the same time, they’re expected to compete, they’re expected to make good grades, they’re expected to be on par with their peers who may have other support systems in place. The pandemic benefit expansion allowed students to participate regardless of whether they tacked on an additional 20 hours to their already 40 to 60 hour work week was an essential benefit. This is one that we at Bread would like to see continue.

You mentioned some of the hurdles for college students who could potentially utilize SNAP benefits, the work study requirement is one. Are there others the college students have to face?

The work study is one of the essential requirements that they have to face. There are some exceptions. For example, if a student has a differing ability or another term might be a disability. There are some exceptions, but they’re so specialized that we want to make sure that students who may be on their own, may be low income themselves, not receiving any support from their families are able to still access the benefit without having to partake in this requirement.

What’s known at the moment about food insecurity among college students?

There are studies that were actually taken right before the pandemic. One in particular done by Temple University showed that nearly 167,000 surveyed, 40% of these individuals experienced food insecurity. And we also know that of these fewer than one in five were accessing SNAP. Again, it speaks to the lack of awareness and how severely underutilized the program is.

You’ve painted a really striking picture of the number of people affected and how seriously it can affect their lives. You mentioned several really important things. One is just the stress of not knowing whether you’ll have enough food or having to have so many requirements imposed on you, work requirements, study requirements, getting food requirements can really add an awful lot of extra pressure to what’s a pretty pressured time of life anyway for people. And then adding to that, what you mentioned at the outset that an under-nourished person can’t learn and function as well as somebody who’s well-nourished is really is very serious issue. What do you think might be done?

The hope is that some of the expansion that was put in place, specifically in correlation to the pandemic, that this would continue, that students would still have the opportunity, those who are eligible, to receive up to $95 a month. When we think about inflation and when we think about how high food prices are, we know how necessary this is. While the benefit may suddenly expire in a couple of months, inflation will not necessarily disappear. Food insecurity that was already high before the pandemic will still continue to persist. We know that some 40% of individuals who attend college come from low income families. So the need is still there. What we would like to see is that the availability of this amount of up to $95 a month would continue. We would also like to see the hourly work requirement be dropped. Those who are eligible for federal work study should not be mandated to work an additional 20 hours a week when they’re already investing 40 to 60 hours a week in a given week in their studies. And so we want to ensure that they can invest their time, their energy in their studies, in their schoolwork, what they are there to do, and that they have the energy, that they have access nutrition to be able to perform well.

Those things sure make sense. Let me ask you one final question. You mentioned that only a fraction of the students who are eligible for SNAP are actually enrolled in the program. Are there efforts underway that you’re aware of to just get that number higher so that students are made aware they’re eligible and they have some coaching or assistance on how to sign up?

To my knowledge, there are no efforts and there’s no requirement in the law to make students aware. So this is one of the changes that we are advocating for, that schools would be required by the law to ensure that all students are made aware of the program, what the eligibility requirements or criteria may be so they can access it because it is available to them.

That sounds like something where the colleges themselves could be a big help. They provide lots of guidance to students on all kinds of things. And boy, this could be one thing where colleges could really take the lead in letting the students know about these benefits and providing some help to get people signed up. I’m not aware of any places doing that, although they might very well exist. But if they are out there, it would be good to create a model that could be replicated in other places.

Exactly. As I understand, there are a number of student groups now that may help to make students aware of food donation programs, of food banks. I was informed recently that some schools allow students to donate some of their meals that they already purchased through the school program to their peers. While these programs are helpful it means that students, their food security is contingent on the generosity of their peers, that their access to nutrition is contingent on food that is made available through the food bank system. We know in recent years because of the pandemic, also because of inflation that it has been difficult for food banks to keep stocked up and to also have the number of volunteers that are necessary to distribute. Again, we support these programs, they are important, but alone they do not have the ability to really put dent in hunger like a federally supported program does. We know that the SNAP program is the most effective anti-hunger program in America. It is our moral responsibility to ensure that our young people as they are eligible, have access to this program as well. It’s important to know that students who are food insecure are 43% less likely to graduate than their food secure peers and 61% less likely to get an advanced degree. When we think about helping to ensure students ability to succeed personally, but also their ability to contribute to our society and economy, it makes strategic and moral sense to ensure that they are food secure.


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