Food Insecurity Won’t End with the Pandemic, But This Legislation Could Help

Blog Post
May 26, 2021

College students experiencing food insecurity often have to make many tough decisions, like choosing between paying rent or purchasing groceries, staying up to study or going to sleep early to suppress hunger, and skipping dinner to afford a meal tomorrow. 

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, 1 in 3 college students faced food insecurity, which means they experienced inconsistent access to enough food. The pandemic has only exacerbated this problem. Research has shown that food insecurity contributes to poor mental and physical well-being and decreases the likelihood that students will complete their degree. Despite state and local advances to address inequitable access to food, too many college students still go hungry. The federal government can and should step in to help address lack of access to nutritious foods. 

During the pandemic, the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021 was one effort implemented at the federal level aimed at addressing food insecurity; it changed SNAP eligibility requirements so that more students could access the benefits during the pandemic. The problem is that these are temporary changes that will be terminated 30 days after the end of the COVID-19 emergency. Unfortunately, the end of the pandemic will not bring an end to food insecurity on college campuses. 

That is where the Student Food Security Act of 2021 would come in. This bill, sponsored by Senators Warren, Murphy, Padilla, and Sanders and Representatives Hayes, Lawson and Torres, proposes a permanent change to student SNAP eligibility and would provide additional institutional funding to help colleges confront the hunger crisis students face on their campuses, beyond temporary pandemic efforts.  

Most notably, the Student Food Security Act of 2021 would permanently expand eligibility to many students who were ineligible before the pandemic: those who are eligible for Federal Work Study, have an Expected Family Contribution (EFC) of zero, meet the eligibility for the maximum Pell Grant award (including students who have not filed the Free Application for Federal Student Aid or FAFSA), and independent students whose household meets the requirements. Under the bill, nearly 3 million low-income students who were previously ineligible would be able to access SNAP benefits. 

This legislation would also require the Department of Education to use data from the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) to inform students of their potential eligibility when they apply for federal financial aid. Another part of the bill would create a $1 billion per year grant program that would provide institutions with funding to establish and promote food and housing security programs at an institutional level, such as establishing a steering community that would develop and implement strategies to address students’ housing and food needs. Of these grant funds, 33 percent would be reserved for community colleges, and priority would be given to Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), Minority Serving Institutions (MSIs) and colleges that serve a large percentage of Pell recipients. Importantly, the legislation would also require the Education Department to collect data on food and housing insecurity campuses nationwide. 

The proposed permanent expansion of eligibility in this bill is an important step towards supporting non-traditional and low-income students who face greater rates of food insecurity and therefore often have lower graduation rates. They would have positive effects on many students who are food insecure. 

For example, the proposed changes to the work requirement would help more students access SNAP while also helping them focus on their studies. Prior to the pandemic extensions, students had to hold a work study job or work more than 20 hours a week to be eligible for the benefits. This made it challenging for busy students, who often find themselves balancing work, school, clubs, and family responsibilities, to focus on their studies and family matters. For many, working 20 hours per week as a student is not always manageable or possible. And for others, getting a job to begin with could be challenging considering the lingering pandemic-induced recession. This bill would eliminate the 20 hour work requirement permanently, which reduces a barrier to eligibility for SNAP for busy students. 

Moreover, students who have not filed the FAFSA would now be eligible for SNAP. FAFSA completion is often a barrier for many students because it is a lengthy and overwhelming process. Removing this requirement would make access to SNAP easier for students who face barriers in completing the FAFSA, like lack of support from an advisor or counselor. Unfortunately, however, undocumented students would remain ineligible for SNAP due to the prohibition from the 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA), despite the fact that some of them could complete the FAFSA for state aid purposes.

Even when students do meet eligibility requirements, many do not know they are eligible for SNAP benefits. This legislation would require that the Department of Education be proactive in outreaching to food-insecure students instead of leaving it to students to figure out by notifying students that they meet eligibility requirements and may qualify to enroll in SNAP. This way, more students could enroll in SNAP than if they were not informed that they qualify.

This legislation would help colleges help their students better, too. The grant program proposed would provide colleges and universities with funds to invest in establishing strategies to improve outreach and the coordination of resources. These funds would allow colleges to conduct research and implement programs that would improve outreach efforts, redirecting resources where institutions see the most dire need. This could be through food voucher programs, targeted outreach efforts for student parents, or training advisors to identify food insecure students, for example. Data collection would advance these efforts by helping colleges identify what resources would benefit students most. 

Local and state efforts to address inequitable access to healthy foods have expanded over the years, but it is time for change at the national level to support starving students and address food disparity on college campuses. While the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021 provided temporary relief to some food insecure students nationwide, these benefits need to be expanded permanently, especially considering food insecurity will not end with the pandemic. The Student Food Security Act of 2021 is an important effort in supporting low-income college students who face food insecurity and may otherwise not complete their degree. These expansions would not only address food insecurity faced by college students, but it would also be a step towards increasing graduation rates, particularly for low-income and non-traditional students who are often working multiple jobs to cover tuition and living expenses.  

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