For Isnino, a first-year student at Community College of Denver (CCD), life constantly cycles between work and school.
“I have no days off. There are no days off,” she told a group of higher education and government representatives at a convening hosted by the Colorado Department of Higher Education (CDHE) and the Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP) earlier this month. “I spend my Saturdays sleeping because I’m so exhausted.”
Isnino, like many of her peers, is working her way through college. And while the aspiring police detective is just getting started on her higher education journey, she has already struggled with a dire problem: not getting enough to eat.
Isnino is far from alone. As tuition prices continue to rise, so has food and housing costs — ushering in a campus hunger and homelessness crisis. A recent report from the Urban Institute found that at least 11 percent of four-year students and 13.5 percent of two-year students go hungry. Campus food insecurity has even caught the attention of the U.S. Senate, which recently debated a bill that would charge the federal government to study the issue.
This discussion prompted CLASP, CDHE and the Colorado Department of Human Services to convene college and university representatives to figure out what’s working — and what’s not — in curbing campus hunger. Isnino, along with student panelists Katalina and Aujanair, said institutions and the state can do much more to assist current and prospective college students.
One solution: SNAP
After conducting a statewide survey last year, CDHE found that nearly all Colorado campuses are fighting food insecurity. At Adams State University, located in rural Alamosa, more than half of the students said they worried about their food supply running out, representatives reported at the convening.
To help, Colorado institutions have established food pantries and community gardens that offer free meals to students. Several schools, including the University of Colorado Denver, started emergency cash funds that can cover unexpected expenses. Others encourage students to donate unused meal swipes to classmates in need.
When asked about their own survival strategies, panelists said they often track down free food at school events — what they jokingly called a “student’s best friend.”
While these interventions work in the short-term, campus leadership are looking for sustainable solutions for food-insecure students. One promising approach is getting more eligible students to apply for the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly known as SNAP.
As CLASP policy analyst Carrie Welton explained, SNAP provides a monthly food stipend for individuals and families living in poverty — up to $192 and $504 respectively. Similar to other federal programs, SNAP recipients must work a specific number of hours a week or be enrolled in a relevant education program to qualify.
Enrollment in SNAP among college students, however, is very low. According to a 2015 analysis from Young Invincibles, only 10 percent of eligible undergraduate students receive SNAP benefits nationwide. In fact, most don’t even apply, either because they’re either not aware of the program or don’t think they meet the requirements. In Colorado alone, about 65,000 eligible undergraduate students missed out on SNAP benefits, leaving $97.5 million in federal funds on the table.
But as Carrie noted, college campuses — especially in Colorado — are ripe for SNAP participation. More than three-fourths of Colorado students already meet the work requirement, and increasingly, many come from low-income households. CLASP estimates that 57 percent of all Colorado students could receive federal food assistance if they applied — support that would help stave off hunger and lower the overall cost of college.
A complicated process
Getting the benefits, however, is far from guaranteed. Former CCD student Katalina, who plans to pursue a degree in sociology and political science, was denied SNAP a few years ago.
“I never knew about SNAP until I went to CCD’s food pantry. They had these little informational cards,” she said. “I tried to apply, but I made too much money. I’m obviously working these other jobs because I can’t make it. I’m struggling.
“I’ve never tried to reapply,” she continued. “I barely have enough money for gas to get down to school.”
Beyond making these tough choices, many students also face cultural expectations to provide for themselves, she said. Asking for help can be an intimidating, even degrading encounter.
“The experience is very dehumanizing. You have to put your pride aside,” Katalina said about the application process. “You have to wait in line [in the human services office]. You don’t want to go back to that. It’s stressful to be sitting in those seats, waiting.” Instead of waiting for students to reach out, Katalina suggested, faculty and staff should actively tell students about SNAP and other federal benefit programs.
Aujanair, who is earning her GED through Mile High Youth Corps, has faced similar challenges in securing SNAP benefits. While caring for her infant daughter, Aujanair lost eligibility because she failed to meet the work requirement. Fortunately, Mile High Youth Corps allows her to study and work at the same time, and she’s on her way to earning a credential. In addition to getting her OSHA certification in construction, Aujanair will also qualify for a scholarship that can jumpstart her college education.
“I want to live comfortably, have my own place and not be in public housing and on SNAP,” she told the group. “Sometimes I just want to get my GED and get out, but I just keep pushing myself.”
Knocking down barriers
Although these young women are proud of what they have overcome, they said campuses can do much more to prevent students from going hungry. Covering SNAP at freshman orientation, embedding the application into existing financial aid processes or providing more one-on-one guidance could all break through the stigma and improve participation, panelists said.
Campuses can also change policies and programs to help more students qualify for SNAP. Since students who receive a work study position — either through federal or state financial aid — are eligible for SNAP, institutions could prioritize awards for food-insecure students.
At the state level, Colorado could count workforce training programs toward the SNAP work requirement; some states have broadened the definition of qualifying programs to ensure more students meet SNAP eligibility. Colorado leaders could also push for higher income thresholds or lower work hour requirements to expand the eligibility pool.
Knocking down those barriers, the panelists said, is critical in an economy that demands higher levels of education. When you’re already paying so much for tuition, Katalina said, struggling to eat can feel like a slap in the face. Still, she’s determined to get back on track and earn her degree.
“I don’t believe a piece of paper defines me or what I can do, but I know the reality,” she said. “I have to get that piece of paper.”
For more information on SNAP participation among college students, visit the CLASP website.