Though it’s hard to imagine, there will come a day when the federal government declares the COVID-19 pandemic to be “over.” Our current state of public health emergency is set to end on April 16. And once it ends, temporary pandemic-related relief measures will also expire.
One of those threatened relief measures is the expansion of federal food assistance for low-income college students. To make matters worse, the “pandemic pause” on student loan repayment also expires on May 1, and presidential campaign promises of federal student loan forgiveness remain unfulfilled.
Jokes about college students surviving on ramen noodles disguise the truth that one in every four college students in Minnesota is food insecure, meaning they don’t have enough food to maintain their health. Rates are even higher for students from under-resourced and marginalized communities — for example, 33 percent of first-generation college students and 43 percent of Black students in Minnesota are food insecure. The pandemic created an array of additional economic hardships for students. High unemployment rates for young adults and on-going declines in college enrollment are evidence of that struggle.
To help address these challenges, Congress passed the Consolidated Appropriations Act in December 2020, temporarily expanding college student eligibility for food assistance through the USDA Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) in several key ways. Because of these important expansions, many low-income students in need are now able to receive SNAP benefits. Previously, most able-bodied students enrolled in higher education at least half time were not eligible for benefits unless they met specific exemption criteria, such as active participation in a government work study program, weekly employment of 20 hours or more, or responsibility for a child dependent.
“The expansion of SNAP benefits has been really important for students,” said Catherine Paro, student support manager at St. Cloud Community and Technical College. “Many students who meet the SNAP income guidelines now weren’t previously eligible because they couldn’t add working 20 hours each week in addition to their academic schedule. The pandemic made it even more difficult for these students to stay afloat, and the SNAP expansion has provided much-needed extra grocery money for them and their families each month.”
Unfortunately, these key expansions to SNAP eligibility are due to expire on April 16. And then, much like before COVID, low-income students will struggle to meet their basic needs and have to question where their next meal will come from.
Ending food insecurity during college could have important long-term implications. Research published last year showed students who experienced food insecurity during college were 43 percent less likely than their peers to graduate, and the effect of food insecurity on college dropout rates was far worse for first generation college students than for others.
Bills now under consideration to address the problem
The temporary expansions to SNAP access for college students should be continued and expanded, and legislators have proposed two noteworthy bills to do so. First, the Student Food Security Act of 2021 would make the temporary COVID-19 SNAP student eligibility changes permanent. In addition, it would allow students who meet the financial eligibility criteria to receive the maximum Federal Pell Grant to also be SNAP eligible. Second, the EATS Act of 2021 would further extend SNAP and end the eligibility requirements of active participation in work study programs or 20 or more hours of weekly outside employment for most people attending college at least half time.
“The EATS Act provides an opportunity to permanently ensure low-income college students have equitable access to SNAP, the nation’s first line of defense against hunger,” said Luis Guardia, president of the Food Research & Action Center, a leading national non-profit organization based in Washington D.C. “Students cannot learn on an empty stomach. It’s time that we fully respond to their economic needs and help students achieve their educational goals.”
We need action
As a country, we need to do the right thing and make sure we support low-income young people in pursuing higher education to help ensure a better future for themselves and their families.
Melissa Laska, PhD, RD is a distinguished McKnight University professor at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health and is an expert in nutrition, food access and health disparities.