WASHINGTON, D.C. — U.S. Senator Alex Padilla (D-Calif.) co-led a letter signed by over 80 of his colleagues to U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Secretary Thomas Vilsack urging him to issue guidance clarifying college students’ eligibility for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits to address the growing food insecurity crisis among college students.
“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 lawmakers wrote. “USDA has the authority to change that.”
In California, it is estimated that while up to 689,000 students likely qualify for CalFresh, only 127,000 students take advantage of the program. A 2019 report found that one in three California students are food and housing insecure and that black and Latino students were more likely than other students to be food- and housing-insecure.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, a GAO report also found that thousands of low-income students who should qualify for SNAP never accessed these 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.
The COVID-19 pandemic, however, 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 percent of Black and 70 percent of American Indian or Alaska Native students experienced food insecurity, housing insecurity, or homelessness—rates substantially higher than their white peers.
The lawmakers specifically call on USDA to issue guidance to clarify that the following groups are eligible for SNAP benefits without work requirements: 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 lawmakers concluded.
Padilla is a strong advocate for student wellbeing and is working to ensure students have their basic needs met while pursuing higher education. He introduced the Student Food Security Act of 2021, bicameral legislation to address food insecurity on college campuses, the Basic Assistance for Students in College (BASIC) Act, legislation to ensure college students are able to meet their basic needs while pursuing their education, and cosponsored the EATS Act that would level SNAP access for college students.
The letter is also signed by Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), and Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Tina Smith (D-Minn.), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), Tim Kaine (D-Va.), Reverend Raphael Warnock (D-Ga.), Bob Casey (D-Pa.), Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), Mark Warner (D-Va.), Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and 70 of their colleagues in the House of Representatives.