More UC Berkeley students using food stamps than ever before

Ciecie Chen/Staff

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As a food-insecure student who struggles to balance the stress of a job on top of classes, UC Berkeley sophomore Jenifer Lomeli-Quintero called the food stamps given to her through CalFresh a “lifesaver.”

Although Lomeli-Quintero said in an email that she has heard students being criticized for not being self-sufficient and low-income people being accused of taking advantage of government benefits, she has seen that college students are still caught in situations in which they must choose between paying for education or food.

According to UC Berkeley Basic Needs Committee chair Ruben E. Canedo, 126 UC Berkeley students submitted applications in 2017 for CalFresh, the California branch of the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. This is a significant increase from the eight applications that were submitted in September 2014.

“This year we’ve assisted over 500 students,” said Elizabeth Gomez, associate director of client services for the Alameda County Community Food Bank. “This is largely attributed to the fact that the eligibility rules have been improved.”

According to a survey conducted by the Nutrition Policy Institute in 2015, 48 percent of undergraduate students and 25 percent of graduate students reported being food-insecure across the entire UC system.

UC Berkeley has taken several steps to increase student participation in food insecurity programs. Every Friday, the campus Basic Needs Committee collaborates with the Alameda County Community Food Bank to host CalFresh application clinics for about 25 students, in addition to larger clinics serving roughly 50 students once a month.

“Students are dealing with food insecurity by either skipping meals or eating junk food. In the long run, this is not good for our bodies and mental health,” Lomeli-Quintero said in an email. “We are in a rigorous university and spend many hours reading, studying. … We need nutritious food to fuel our minds.”

During UC Berkeley’s Hunger and Homelessness Awareness week, held from Nov. 12-17, 182 additional CalFresh applications were prescreened within five hours.

For the 2017-18 school year, the Berkeley Food Pantry has also had more total visits per month since it opened in spring 2014. This year, Canedo said, information about the food pantry was included in both the campus’s undergraduate and graduate orientations to increase awareness and accessibility.

“When students come to the Pantry, they’re also exposed to more resources,” Canedo said. “It’s not just about having a food pantry, but making sure that there’s a web that connects you to additional resources for basic needs.”

According to campus agricultural and resource economics professor Jeffrey Perloff, the food stamps program is one of the largest national welfare programs. The program is a major part of people’s “safety nets,” Perloff said, because people in the program generally are not able to acquire more food than what they receive from their food stamps.

“If (Republicans) pass the tax bill, which will really substantially hurt graduate students, they’re going to have to make much more use of food stamps and other programs … unless the government cuts those too,” Perloff said.

Contact Gioia von Staden at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @GioiaVon.