Ensuring vulnerable college students have enough to eat, especially during COVID-19

Martha Coventry | September 1, 2020

Before the onset of the pandemic, about 1 in 3 college students were experiencing food insecurity and living in or near poverty. Students of color and first-generation college students have been at the highest risk for food insecurity, which could have a serious impact on their education and ability to graduate.

The situation has likely worsened for students since COVID-19 began. Young adults, particularly those ages 20-24, have also experienced some of the highest rates of unemployment due to COVID-19. Campus food pantries and many other critical resources have been limited or unavailable. In addition, most students are not eligible for federal nutrition assistance programs, such as SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as Food Stamps), and those who are can be disqualified when unemployed. States requesting federal waivers to give students more access to SNAP during the pandemic — for example, temporarily waiving student work requirements — have all been denied.

A new paper in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior, led by University of Minnesota School of Public Health Distinguished Professor Melissa Laska, highlights findings from a systematic legal review of federal bills addressing food insecurity among college students. The paper also explores gaps and opportunities for improving policy efforts.

“There are so many college students who are struggling financially, especially now,” says Laska. “Federal food assistance programs exclude these young people, assuming they are supported by their parents. This simply isn’t true for a large portion of students.” 

During the current federal legislative session (2019-2020), 17 bills were introduced to directly address college student hunger, using mechanisms such as small grant programs, SNAP eligibility information dissemination, and data sharing to identify students eligible for food assistance. When Congress proposed four COVID-19 stimulus bills, none specifically addressed food insecurity, though some addressed student financial needs more generally. Two efforts, the Emergency Ensuring Access to SNAP (EATS) Act and End Pandemic Hunger For College Students Act, were recently introduced to provide more student access to SNAP during the pandemic. Fourteen states have also introduced and/or passed legislation on college food insecurity. 

Although the authors applaud these actions, they assert that a coordinated federal effort is essential for meaningful change. They recommend:

  • More comprehensive government approaches across agencies, such as the Department of Education, USDA, and CDC, as well as federal, state, tribal, and local governments and postsecondary institutions. 
  • More involvement and advocacy in policy development and evaluation from nutrition, health and education professionals. 
  • National surveillance among college students to provide representative and reliable estimates of food insecurity and on-going monitoring. 
  • Research support to build a better evidence base for future policy action, including longitudinal studies and intervention trials to quantify short- and long-term consequences of food insecurity and identify viable approaches to lessen the burden of food insecurity on students. 

In a recent op-ed published in The Hill, Laska writes, “It’s time for USDA, state social service agencies, and Congress to do their homework and update SNAP eligibility, communication, outreach, and technical assistance to better align with today’s college student needs.”

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