Why some food-insecure disabled students can’t use CalFresh food stamps

Ana Isabel Diaz/Staff

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Although more UC Berkeley students are using food stamps than ever before, policy restrictions surrounding CalFresh subsidies have limited the aid for some students with disabilities.

For campus senior Sarah Funes, difficulties with food access have only added to the burden of living as a disabled student at UC Berkeley. Funes said she has a brain tumor that has made working difficult, but she has been supplementing her income with campus work-study jobs. Funes receives supplemental security income, or SSI, but said it is “impossible” to live on.

SSI is a federally funded program that provides income support for individuals who are disabled, blind or at least 65 years of age. Elizabeth Gomez, associate director of client services at the Alameda County Community Food Bank, said anyone who receives SSI is not eligible for benefits such as CalFresh that are provided by the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP.

This is because the state’s SSI payment already includes an allotment for food, according to Gomez, which includes the value of the CalFresh allowance. Funes said getting adequate food with the SSI allocation is not plausible. Last summer, SSI was Funes’ main source of income.

“(During the summer) I was living off of $895 per month for three months,” Funes said. “My rent (was) $600 and my utilities were $20, and I was supposed to be able to live off the rest.”

During this time, Funes went to the UC Berkeley Food Pantry, an emergency relief food supply located in the basement of the Martin Luther King Jr. Student Union. The pantry is open to all UC Berkeley undergraduate and graduate students, but Funes said the pantry is difficult for her to access because of distance and limited accommodations for disabled students.

Although the pantry is usually staffed by students, it utilizes parent volunteers during finals and dead week. Parent volunteers May Chen and Julie Chiu said they hadn’t received any special training for assisting disabled students.

“The building is wheelchair accessible,” Chen said regarding the pantry’s accommodations for disabled students. “(But) in terms of (food) prepping, we weren’t trained for that.”

Funes said she hopes the food bank on campus will find a way to accommodate disabled students. She said she has reached out to the student affairs office, which said she was already utilizing all the available resources.

Despite this, Funes said she needed loans to live in International House, a campus housing residence, and expressed concerns about paying for both her housing and food.

Proposed changes to Medicaid and Social Security, coupled with Funes’s disability, have made her future plans of going to graduate school uncertain, but Funes said she hopes awareness of the food insecurity issue will spread.

“I’m always working. I’ve never just been able to be a student at (UC Berkeley),” Funes said. “I hope that people start realizing that the people who are disabled on this campus don’t have a lot of resources.”

Contact Elena Aguirre at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @eaguirreDC.