The University of California, Irvine (UCI) Basic Needs Center offers a variety of services to UCI students to help them meet their basic needs. We understand that meeting the basic needs of our students greatly impacts their mental and physical health, academic performance, and overall well-being. At the Basic Needs Center, one of the services we offer is CalFresh Application Assistance, where students are paired with a trained advocate who guides them through the entire application and provides thorough information on the program, including where benefits can be used, where to submit documents, and how benefits are received.
CalFresh, known federally as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), is an essential resource for reducing hunger and food insecurity and improving access to nutritious food. Food insecurity continues to be prevalent among college students (43% for undergraduate students and 20% for graduate students within the University of California system) and can be linked with poorer overall health and academic performance, including lower graduation rates. Among students, food insecurity can result in frequently skipping meals, going without food, or prioritizing cost over quality of food. Access to healthy and nutritious meals improves students’ energy levels and ability to concentrate and can positively impact their mental and physical health. CalFresh can be instrumental in helping alleviate hunger by providing students with food autonomy through monthly financial assistance. Students may not prioritize stable and adequate nutrition when faced with competing basic need expenses such as housing, transportation, clothing, utilities, and more.
The Basic Needs Center has helped hundreds of students apply for CalFresh Benefits. Throughout this process, one of the most gratifying and rewarding experiences was when students who previously could not apply to SNAP were able to apply for benefits because of the temporary or new exemptions made available during the COVID-19 Public Health Emergency. A few of these impactful temporary exemptions opened SNAP eligibility to students who have an Expected Family Contribution (EFC) of zero dollars or are eligible for federal or state work study. On our campus alone, there were 1,949 students who received the student exemption of Zero EFC during the 2022-23 academic year and 2,321 students who received the exemption in the 2021-22 academic year. What this meant is that students who met the other CalFresh criteria (citizenship and income guidelines) could now utilize the Zero EFC as their student eligibility requirement and apply for benefits. Unfortunately, these exemptions were recently phased out, meaning that the 2,321 students who were recipients of the Zero EFC at our campus may lose their eligibility if they do not have another student exemption.
Like many campuses, we are working to expand eligibility rules to increase access to benefits for college students and create greater food security in our community. Last summer, we worked with the Center for Healthy Communities to increase the number of CalFresh exemptions on our campus. We worked together to identify which academic and professional programs at UCI meet the state guidelines to be added as a student exemption for CalFresh. Through this collaboration, over 100 programs were added to the California Department of Social Services: CalFresh Student Eligibility List. This means that students in the approved programs who meet the income guidelines and other eligibility rules may apply for CalFresh Benefits. Programs that were approved had a CalFresh Employment & Training component, which is defined as a required service, activity, or program designed to help CalFresh recipients gain skills, training, or work experience. Examples of the Employment & Training components include work readiness training programs and academic programs that require an internship, practicum, fieldwork experience, or capstone with work experience.
Due to the recent phase-out of the two temporary exemptions, food insecurity among college students may be exacerbated in the upcoming academic year. Having access to food is a human right that all students should have, and one of the ways we can achieve improved food access for students is through policy change that supports basic needs efforts. In the upcoming Farm Bill, Congress has the option to expand eligibility rules and make temporary student SNAP exemptions permanent, helping more college students to receive CalFresh and meet their basic needs.