Congress changed the rules for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) to make the program more accessible to college students than before the pandemic.
SNAP, formally known as food stamps, is a federal program established under the USDA that provides money for groceries each month for people who qualify based on their income.
The program previously excluded full-time college students unless they met certain exemptions. Some of these exemptions included working at least 20 hours a week, having a disability, caring for a child under the age of 6 or participating in a state or federally financed work study program.
Congress added additional criteria through the Consolidated Appropriations Act that broadens who is eligible to receive benefits. A full-time college student now qualifies for SNAP benefits if they are eligible to participate in state or federally financed work study during the regular school year, or have an expected family contribution (EFC) of 0 in the current academic year.
Additionally, SNAP recipients are receiving the maximum amount of money allowed for their household size because of financial strain caused by the pandemic. Beforehand, SNAP benefits ranged from $19 to $234 for an individual. Now, single-person households receive $234 for groceries per month, while two-person households receive $430.
Money for groceries could relieve strain on other parts of eligible college students’ budgets, such as rent and other expenses.
Although LSU’s food pantry provides students with free meals, Director of Safety Net Policy at the LA Budget Project Danny Mintz said the pantry’s assistance is limited.
“When you think about the investment the college makes in the food pantry, which is certainly an important and worthy thing to keep doing, LSU is probably not investing $234 per student per month in the pantry, but that’s the amount that would be available to individual students who qualify for SNAP,” Mintz said. “For every meal that a food bank serves, SNAP serves nine meals generally. $234 a month buys a pretty reasonable amount of food.”
Mintz said the changes better reflect the reality of what college students experience today.
“While in school, they have limited capacity to work outside of school and often are financially independent or otherwise primarily responsible for supporting themselves, and so deserve food assistance benefits just like anyone else,” Mintz said.
A recent survey by Hope Center found that rates of food insecurity among students ranged from 33% to 42% at four-year institutions.
A significant challenge in reducing food insecurity among college students, according to Mintz, is making students aware of assistance they are eligible for.
“Probably the most important action a college can take is for the financial aid office to reach out directly to students through an email and explain that they may be eligible for SNAP based on information already in the University’s system,” Mintz said. “LSU could work with student organizations to publicize this public benefits change, which would also help reduce stigma around the program.”
The changes to the eligibility requirements are temporary. The changes are in effect until 30 days after the national public health emergency expires from the coronavirus, but it’s unclear when that could be.
“It’s quite possible that the federal public health emergency could last all the way through the end of 2021,” Mintza said. “That’s at least another six months. Students who qualify under the school rule remain eligible until their case has to be redetermined.”
Mintz said Congress should consider making these benefits more accessible to students even after the pandemic.
“Congress could revisit the current student rules and change them to make these components a permanent part of the SNAP program,” he said, “or they could look at other ways of recognizing that students, for example, who were qualifying for SNAP before they started college shouldn’t be penalized for starting a full-time program.”
For students who don’t qualify for SNAP, the food bank serves free meals for students regardless of their financial circumstances.
Associate Dean of Students and Director of Campus Life Jacob Brumfield said there has been a “strong use” for the LSU Food Pantry this year. He said there were 1,111 student patrons between July 1, 2020 and March 17, 2021. In the previous year, from July 1, 2019 to June 30, 2020, he said 1,650 student patrons visited the Food Pantry.
“The LSU Food Pantry is open to all currently-enrolled students,” Brumfield said. “We do not ask student qualifying questions when they use our service (level of financial need, extenuating circumstances, why they are using the pantry, etc.).”