In recent years, there have been articles circulating on the growing food insecurity of college students. According to assessments conducted by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), one in three college students experiences food insecurity. As expected, the COVID-19 pandemic has only made an already bad situation much worse. Quarantine forced several students off campus, despite the fact that they may have already paid for tuition, housing, and other student service fees that they couldn’t use off-campus. Many students were reimbursed for these charges, yet many weren’t.
NIH has acknowledged that this dilemma has not been widely researched, as it’s a complex issue that doesn’t fall neatly into any one category. A related population that suffers from a lack of research is former foster youth. When we discuss the uncertainty, hardship, and significant stress that food insecurity causes college students, we often neglect this community.
The new student body is made up of “non-traditional” students, meaning they are financially independent, work full-time while attending school, did not receive a traditional high school diploma, and/or attend school part-time. Typically, when we as Americans think about college students, we think of a young adult, fresh out of high school, who attends college full-time, is most likely living in a dormitory or at home with parents, and depends on them for financial support.
Over time, this has drastically shifted. Today, 71% of college students are “non-traditional.”
Students from marginalized communities, including but not limited to people of color or those from a lower socio-economic standing, are often at a disadvantage. Former foster youth fall into this category, as they often do not have any familial support, may not have homes to go back to after emancipation from the system, and do not receive the financial cushion that their more “traditional” peers have.
You might be thinking to yourself, “Okay, why don’t they just apply for government assistance then?” The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), or more colloquially referred to as “food stamps,” has strict federal requirements in place that are barriers to college students qualifying for them.
There are several exemptions that may help students who are parents, have a disability, are younger than 18 or older than 50, etc. But some of the exemptions actually make it harder to qualify.
For former foster youth, there is an exemption in place which allows them to receive SNAP if they are currently involved in a campus organization that supports former foster youth, specifically.
While I attended University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), I was a part of the Bruin Guardian Scholars program. This granted me access to California’s SNAP equivalent, CalFresh benefits.
But unfortunately, other institutions of higher learning, such as private schools and/or nonprofits, do not have these types of programs available for their student bodies.
So when I graduated with my bachelors of arts degree and went on to grad school, I was immediately cut off and lost my benefits.
Another exemption in place is to be enrolled in federal work study, and/or be working at least 20 hours per week. I was able to land a student worker position at my grad school, so I thought this was sorted out. I reapplied and had my benefits reinstated, only to lose them again!
If you did so much as miss one hour of work, you were cut off immediately. They asked for my paystubs every couple of months, and if I submitted one that showed I missed half of a work day or more, I was cut off without fail.
I tried advocating for myself by letting my caseworker know I was sick, but that didn’t do justice.
Before I could reapply, my school was facing budget cuts and had to reduce my student worker hours from 20 to 15, and then 12, and finally eight. Before I knew it, I was ineligible.
I later received several chronic health diagnoses, a commonality amongst foster youth as 13% of us have a disability. This meant I should have been able to qualify with the exemption for disabled individuals. But because I have an advanced degree and a part-time job, I now make “too much income,” even though I’m still a former foster youth. Therefore, I still don’t have the support that others my age and in my position can count on.
So when they say I make “too much income,” what exactly do they mean?
The numbers are quite ridiculous. The current federal income eligibility requirement for SNAP is 100%-130% of the poverty threshold, which translates to $1,396.00 of gross income per month, or $1,074.00 net income per month for a household size of one.
Why am I saying this is ridiculous? Well, the average cost of rent in the U.S. is $1,877 monthly! And the cost to live in a dorm is comparable to this, if not more expensive.
If you reside in Los Angeles, California, forget about it. The current average cost of monthly rent in Los Angeles is $2,073.
As a former foster youth with “invisible” disabilities, I live in Los Angeles County where I need to stay close to school and work. I also need my own living space for my own well-being. I rented a room for a couple of years, which, honestly, wasn’t even much cheaper and just took more of a toll on my mental and emotional health. I lived in transitional housing for a period of time until I aged out of the foster care system and no longer qualified. And there’s no way I can work more than part-time with chronic health issues, constant pain and fatigue, and several doctor’s appointments for ongoing care.
I’m very fortunate to be one of the few that made it through college, as only less than 10% of former foster youth graduate. But even so, my part-time job is only enough to cover the cost of my rent and bills.
I’m lucky that local organizations like Echoes of Hope and Journey House help me monthly to cover the cost of food because I don’t qualify for CalFresh benefits, but what about areas where these types of resources don’t exist?
Many college students are looking to their local food banks for help and many college campuses are implementing food pantry programs. Students are learning to be less ashamed of taking advantage of these resources because they have to for sheer survival.
However, even with these types of support systems in place, college students may still face food insecurity. Some students may have chronic health conditions that create dietary restrictions. When you go to a food bank or pantry, you have to take whatever they have in stock which they usually get when stores have a surplus, people donate, or they purchase in bulk. If you have celiac disease, diabetes, acid reflux, are lactose intolerant, are vegan/vegetarian, or are religious and can only eat kosher or halal, there may not be any options for you. And saying “beggars can’t be choosers” is a part of the problem.
The government did create some COVID-19 funding specifically for individuals/families who are low-income to receive vouchers or gift cards for food through nonprofits and other organizations. They also loosened some of the SNAP restrictions by creating more exemptions, but this is only a start to solving the food insecurity crisis amongst college students. We need more legislation in place to ease the restrictions and make it easier for college students, especially those who are former foster youth, to access SNAP and related assistance.
If you are a parent, caretaker, or loved one of a college student who is a former foster youth, recognize that food insecurity may be a struggle they have and do whatever you can to support them. Whether that means taking them grocery shopping, sending them a monthly food allowance, or inviting them over for home cooked meals, please be a part of the solution. They most certainly need it!