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    Home / College Guide / California Colleges Rush To Get More Students On Food Assistance Before Pandemic
     Posted on Saturday, March 18 @ 00:00:05 PDT

    Students, add this to your to-do list between now and finals week: Apply for federal food assistance before the rapidly approaching end of the rule that allows more people to qualify. Starting June 10, students whose families couldn’t contribute a dollar toward their education or who are approved for federal or state work-study programs will no longer automatically qualify for CalFresh, the program formerly known as food stamps. Instead, students will have to seek those benefits through a stricter set of eligibility rules that limit how many low-income college enrollees can receive food assistance. The looming deadline — the result of the repeal of the federal health care order — is putting pressure on California campus officials, both public and private, and state agencies to inform students that these benefits will soon end. Everyone—advocates, researchers, college social service coordinators and district officials—say now is the time for students to apply. Applying for aid before the rules are tightened again could buy a previously ineligible student as much as a year on food aid, they say. A qualifying student could receive up to $281 a month to pay for groceries.

    Beyond the basic need, making sure students don’t go hungry has clear academic benefits, including higher college graduation rates, studies have shown. “There’s a scramble right now,” said Brandi Simonaro of CalState Chico’s Center for Healthy Communities, which has a state contract to help students apply for food assistance at 48 mostly public college campuses across the state. Part of the challenge, she said, is misinformation among campus officials about CalFresh’s complex and changing eligibility rules; he fears the confusion will discourage students from applying. Marcia Garcia guides students through the CalFresh application process at UC Berkeley and knows firsthand how pressed for time they are, especially for those with jobs or children. “I think there’s always a concern, isn’t there, that not everyone will learn about these resources in time,” she said. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, an estimated 127,000 California students received CalFresh, although 416,471 to 689,233 students were likely eligible. The rush to get the word out underscores advocates’ long-standing frustration with the federal government, which they say blocks many students from vital food assistance — a reversal from the 1970s, when most students in the U.

    S. were considered well-off. Today, far more students from low-income families are attending college — and they need food assistance that most don’t get. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, an estimated 127,000 California students received CalFresh, although 416,471 to 689,233 students likely were eligible, according to a 2020 state report that relied on 2018-2019 data. That same year, according to the California Student Aid Commission, 1 in 3 college students reported being food insecure in any given month. The low participation rate has made the students a particular focus group for policymakers and anti-hunger advocates in California, which is already struggling to deliver food aid to everyone who is eligible. Only about 70% of Californians eligible for food stamps receive them, compared to about 82% in the rest of the nation. There is evidence that expanded eligibility rules have resulted in more students receiving CalFresh. In December 2020, a month before the temporary new rules went into effect, nearly 120,000 students in California were receiving CalFresh. By September 2021, that number had risen to more than 140,000, according to the California Department of Human Services, citing its most recent data in an email to CalMatters.

    The department said it lacks the data to know how many students will lose CalFresh benefits when the health emergency ends. The expanded qualification caused a huge jump in student applications. At the 48 campuses where the Center for Healthy Communities operates, the number of students applying for food assistance jumped from 2,963 at the end of summer 2020 to 12,051 a year later and just over 16,000 at the end of summer 2022. But because of complex eligibility rules, students are often denied food aid applications by county welfare departments, which administer CalFresh on behalf of the state. For example, Simonaro said the state told the center that only half of the applications it helped students file were approved. The right to food assistance Under a 1977 federal law, most college students do not qualify for food assistance. It’s a rule based on outdated notions about who goes to college, advocates say. “There was definitely an image of traditional college students … that they were 18- and 19-year-olds right out of high school, with no dependents that their parents were supporting even if they didn’t live with them,” said Elizabeth Lower-Basch, deputy executive director for policy.

    of the left-leaning Center for Law and Social Policy. Students who are enrolled at least part-time and are between the ages of 18 and 49 can usually only get food assistance if they work at least 20 hours a week — time that some research says ends up hurting students academically. Or, they must meet one of about a dozen narrow exemptions, such as being a single parent, having a disability, or enrolling in special academic and workforce training programs. Students also need to meet the program’s regular income requirements: a maximum of about $27,000 a year for a single-person household, not including grants, loans and scholarships, and then another income test. Community college students are particularly affected by the multitude of eligibility criteria and exemptions. Some students who receive the state’s top financial aid award — the Cal Grant — qualify for food assistance if they also meet income and campus meal plan requirements. California pays awards to some federal welfare funds, and anyone receiving a welfare-funded program can also receive CalFresh. But the shortcut only applies to Cal Grant students who attend California State University, the University of California, or a private college — not the vast majority of community college students.

    That’s because only Cal Grant awards that cover tuition are funded by social dollars. Cal Grants for community college students do not pay tuition, but provide cash awards that do not qualify for federal welfare funding. Federal rules say that financial aid can lead to eligibility for CalFresh only if the aid covers tuition and course fees. As a result, most college students can only receive CalFresh through the Cal Grant after they transfer to a four-year university in California. California lawmakers could change that, a Century Foundation researcher argued in a 2020 report, using federal welfare funds to pay for Promise Grants, the tuition waivers that nearly a million college students receive. This would allow those students to easily qualify for food assistance if they also meet the income rules. California has added ways for students to qualify for aid. For example, the 2021 bill requires campuses to tell the state which academic programs could increase students’ employability — programs that would allow students to receive CalFresh. To date, thousands of programs are listed. Student confusion Jocelyn Gonzalez Fierros, a Chico State senior, found out she was eligible for CalFresh only because the university emailed her saying she met one of the expanded eligibility criteria brought on by the pandemic.

    She’s still receiving CalFresh this year, but with a different exception: Because her parents’ incomes have increased, she no longer receives government financial assistance, but she still qualifies for food assistance through her job as a coordinator for a center for healthy communities. “It’s very confusing just because your situation can change within six months,” Fierros said. Researchers and college aid administrators said that girth districts can create additional barriers for students seeking aid. Because county agencies are funded based on how many people already receive help, not how many apply, welfare officials say they are understaffed because of the surge in student applications, which can take longer to process and be harder to qualify because of student eligibility rules . Raksha Rajeshmohan, 19, took two tries to get CalFresh, despite qualifying easily because she works two part-time jobs in addition to a full load at UC Berkeley. The public health sophomore applied for CalFresh online after hearing about it from a friend. She had trouble on the first try. The agency’s letter scheduling the phone interview arrived a week late; she said the phone call never came.

    After waiting for more than a month, she received a rejection letter saying that she submitted pictures and not documents of her wages. A spokesman for the agency did not respond to a request for comment. Rajeshmohan was approved for CalFresh this January after submitting more detailed documentation. The roughly $250 a month she receives allows her to choose more nutritious, more expensive foods at the grocery store and pack lunches instead of skipping them. “I wouldn’t be surprised if students who are studying other things or who don’t know about this program aren’t as motivated to apply and see it through,” she said. “I think the way the system is set up is quite confusing.” What’s next Once a student receives CalFresh under the expanded criteria, they will continue to receive food assistance until they need to re-certify their eligibility — usually after about a year. But students who have already enrolled under the expanded criteria will have to re-certify their eligibility on a restricted list starting this July. Many students are likely to lose eligibility, but the Department of Social Services did not know how many would drop out of aid. “If they don’t complete another waiver and they’re still viewed as students (when it comes time to re-verify eligibility) then they’re no longer eligible, which is really scary,” Simonaro said.

    While the state cannot change federal eligibility rules, it is working to make the process of renewing or applying for CalFresh easier. Already, 45 counties are accepting applications for public benefits, including food assistance, on a new website called BenefitsCal.com with a student-friendly section. It is expected that the site will be used by all 58 counties by November. For the first time, applicants can digitally schedule appointments with their county case managers, send them messages online, update their address or report a change in circumstances. The website also allows users to upload and obtain all the necessary documents to maintain their right. Moving much of the process online should help students, UC Berkeley’s Garcia said. Last week she met a student who had been granted benefits for six months, but she didn’t know it. The student never received a call or letter from the district informing them of their benefits. What questions do you have about Southern California?

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