On a recent weekday, freshman business student Sean Tolliver stopped by a food pantry on a California college campus to ask about food stamps.
Jobless, and saddled with $800 a month in rent, 20-year-old Tolliver said a typical meal for him is “cheap stuff” like spaghetti.
Tolliver had heard he might be eligible for the state Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program known as CalFresh —though he insists he’s “not the kind of person to ask for stuff,” a sentiment that hints at the stigma persisting around public assistance. Still, he came to the food pantry to find out more.
More than 600 college food pantries across the United States supply groceries and other staples to eligible students. In California, some connect struggling students to support services like CalFresh as part of a $7.5 million outreach plan.
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“People spend all of their money on rent and transportation, and you don’t have anything left for groceries,” said Val Parker, who helped Tolliver set up an appointment to apply for CalFresh at the food pantry at Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa.
Research suggests student hunger is real—and growing. A recent survey of California State University students on 23 campuses found one in five experienced what experts call very low food insecurity. Among Black and first-generation students, the number reporting food insecurity reached 65 percent.
“What we’re talking about in terms of food security are students who don’t have enough money to eat, and are going to school, and working—often two or three jobs—to make ends meets, and going to school hungry,” said principal investigator Rashida Crutchfield, assistant professor of social work at California State University, Long Beach.
Crutchfield said research shows that hunger hinders students’ ability to concentrate and get good grades.
Tolliver said he’d like to eat healthy, but the cost of fresh vegetables is beyond his reach. And that was the case even when he made $11 an hour washing dishes.
Improving student health is one of the reasons colleges encourage students to apply for CalFresh. “If we see you frequently, we suggest, ‘Hey, maybe you should make a CalFresh appointment,’” said Parker.
In Orange County, where Orange Coast College is located, the number of college students signing up for CalFresh more than tripled in the first few months of 2018, compared to the same period last year.
Still, these students represent a tiny fraction of the more than 4 million Californians whom CalFresh serves in an average month.
The massive federally funded program issues around $7 billion in benefits annually in California. Eligibility depends on factors like income and family size, and recipients must work at least 20 hours a week, with some exceptions. The average monthly benefit is $137 per person.
Although college students have been eligible for CalFresh for decades, CalFresh Policy Bureau Chief Alexis Fernandez said student hunger has become a hot topic in the past five years. California’s public colleges and universities “are finding that students are struggling to make ends meet, including their nutrition needs,” she said.
A recent survey suggested that while half of students said they knew of CalFresh, only 10 percent of students experiencing very low food insecurity used the program.
Fernandez said the department recently expanded CalFresh outreach efforts to include more colleges and universities. “We’re out to make sure that folks are not experiencing food insecurity,” she said.
Outreach can only go so far. Crutchfield, the Long Beach professor, recalled a college student who said a typical meal was chips and Minute Maid. It was all she could afford. “And I said, ‘Did you ask for help?’” said Crutchfield. “And she said, ‘No, that’s for students who have less than I do.’”
Crutchfield said another student, one whose breakfast and lunch consisted of a single banana, told her much the same. She believes the stigma around public assistance creates another hurdle to receiving help.
Crutchfield continued, “I heard over and over again, that’s for somebody who needs it more than me.”