The Mercury News
Marcia Garcia guides students through the CalFresh application process at UC Berkeley and sees firsthand how pressed for time they are, especially for those with jobs or children.
“I think there's always this concern, right, that not everyone is going to learn about these resources in time,” she said.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, an estimated 127,000 California college students received CalFresh, even though anywhere from 416,471 to 689,233 students were likely eligible.
The rush to get the word out underscores advocates' long-held frustration with the federal government, which they say blocks many students from vital food aid — a policy holdover from the 1970s, when most college students in the U.S. were thought to be well-off.
Today, far more students from low-income families attend college — and need food assistance that most don't get. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, an estimated 127,000 California college students received CalFresh, even though anywhere from 416,471 to 689,233 students were likely eligible, according to a 2020 state report that relied on 2018-2019 data. In the same year, according to the California Student Aid Commission, 1 in 3 students reported experiencing food insecurity in any given month.
The low participation rate has made college students a group of particular focus for policymakers and anti-hunger advocates in California, which already struggles to deliver food aid to all who qualify. Only about 70% of Californians who are eligible for food stamps receive them, compared with about 82% for the rest of the nation.
There's evidence the expanded eligibility rules led to more college students receiving CalFresh. In December 2020, a month before the temporary new rules kicked in, nearly 120,000 college students in California were receiving CalFresh. By September 2021, that number grew to over 140,000, according to the California Department of Social 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 once the health emergency ends.
The expanded eligibility triggered a huge jump in student applications. On the 48 campuses where the
Center for Healthy Communities works, the number of students applying for food aid jumped from 2,963 in late summer of 2020 to 12,051 a year later and just over 16,000 in late summer 2022.
But because of complex eligibility rules, students often have their food aid applications denied by county welfare departments, which administer CalFresh. Simonaro said the state told the center only about half the applications it has helped students submit are approved.
Students who are enrolled in classes at least half time and are between the ages of 18 and 49 can normally only get food aid if they work at least 20 hours a week.
Or, they must satisfy one of roughly a dozen exemptions, such as being a single parent, having a disability or enrolling in specific programs. Students also then need to meet the program's income requirements: a maximum of about $27,000 a year for a single person.
Chico State senior Jocelyn Gonzalez Fierros only learned she was eligible for CalFresh because the university emailed her.
“It's very confusing just because your situation can change within a course of six months,” Fierros said.
Researchers and college aid administrators said beleaguered counties can create additional roadblocks for students seeking aid.
Welfare officials say they're understaffed for surges in student applications, which can take longer to process and are harder to qualify.
It took Raksha Rajeshmohan, 19, two tries to get CalFresh, despite easily qualifying because she works two part-time jobs on top of taking a full courseload at UC Berkeley.
She applied for CalFresh online. A letter from the agency scheduling a phone interview arrived a week late; she said the phone call never came. After more than a month, she got a denial letter for turning in images rather than documents of her paystubs.
An agency spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment.
Rajeshmohan was approved for CalFresh this January after turning in more detailed documentation. The roughly $250 a month she gets allows her to buy more nutritious food and pack lunches rather than skipping them.
“I wouldn't be surprised if students studying other things or who don't have knowledge about this program aren't as motivated to apply and see it through,” she said. “I think the way that the system is laid out is quite confusing.”
Once a student receives CalFresh under the expanded criteria, they'll continue getting the food aid until they have to recertify their eligibility — usually after about a year.
But students who have already enrolled under the expanded criteria will need to recertify that they're eligible under the more limited list starting this July. It's likely that many students will lose eligibility, but the department of social services did not know just how many.
The state is working to ease the process of renewing or applying for CalFresh.
Already, 45 counties are accepting public benefits applications, including for food aid, on a new website called BenefitsCal.com with a student-friendly section as well. By November, all 58 counties are expected to be using the site. Applicants can schedule appointments with their county case managers digitally, message them online, update their address or report a change in their circumstances.
The website also allows users to upload and receive necessary documents to maintain their eligibility.