Making CalFresh information, eligibility more accessible to graduate students

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Reflecting on my first year at UC Berkeley in 2018 as a transfer, first generation college student, and daughter of Mexican immigrant parents, I wish information about basic needs resources had been more accessible to me. Like many students, I ended up having to seek out those resources on my own.

As a current graduate student, I am aware of the importance of having basic needs met not only in order to have good health and well-being but also to excel in academics.

Multiple generations of students have suffered from food insecurity and it should not be the case for current and future prospective students. It is time to increase access to and awareness of the basic needs resources available to students through their college campuses, specifically graduate students as they face greater responsibilities aside from academics.

Basic needs are unique to every individual. They encompass a variety of essential resources including accessible and affordable nutritious food, secure housing, financial security, mental and physical well-being and reliable transportation, among many others. While all basic needs are important, providing students with access to nutritious and affordable food should be one of the top priorities for every college campus. Graduate students are not eligible for potential programs such as EOP nor are they able to receive Cal Grant A or B, either of which make undergraduate students eligible for CalFresh. Thus, more policy change and outreach are needed to increase the number of graduate students eligible for CalFresh as well as increasing overall awareness for such programs.

CalFresh, also known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, is the largest food program in California. Eligible students may receive benefits up to $204 per month for groceries.

However, someone who is newly applying for CalFresh may be intimidated by the eligibility requirements. To qualify for CalFresh a graduate student must be a U.S. citizen or Legal Permanent Resident, between the ages of 18 and 49, mentally and physically fit, able to work, be enrolled in six units or more, meet the income bracket and satisfy one additional criterion such as having been awarded work-study, working 20 hours per week, having dependents under the age of 12 or receiving services from the Disabled Students Program, or DSP. Students interested in CalFresh should seek the campus Basic Needs Center website to determine their eligibility or assistance with the CalFresh application.

Recently, there have been changes to CalFresh student eligibility rules. The temporary COVID-19 rules expanded participation eligibility to include students that are eligible to participate in state or federal work-study or have an expected family contribution (EFC) of $0. Before this temporary eligibility expansion, the regular CalFresh rules required students to be approved for work-study and anticipate working during the approved terms.

It is unfortunate that these eligibility rules are COVID-19 temporary — what will happen once these temporary changes are lifted? These changes should be permanent as they would increase the number of students that are eligible, as well as alleviate the burden of being expected to work in order to receive benefits as a student.

One way to reach more students is by graduate or professional programs applying to be considered eligible local programs under CalFresh. Californians must support AB-396, as it would require graduate programs that meet the eligibility standards for CalFresh local educational programs to apply for certification to the department. This would lead to more graduate and professional students becoming eligible for CalFresh.

The campus Basic Needs Center has already been working on increasing food resources for graduate students through graduate program exemptions. At UC Berkeley, Master of Public Health, Master of Public Policy, Master of Public Affairs, Master of Social Welfare and Juris Doctorate Program have been added as programs that make students eligible for benefits. Students from these five programs no longer need to meet the hourly work requirement but they still need to meet the income guidelines. While these program exemptions support graduate students, more programs should apply across all campuses in order to better reach graduate and professional students.

Another bill that must be supported is AB-543, which would require UC and CSU campuses to provide information about CalFresh and eligibility to all incoming students as part of their campus orientations. This is essential, as it would allow students from different backgrounds and identities to receive information about CalFresh before even starting their first academic semester or quarter.

Though both of these bills could be a start, more policy and outreach needs to be put in place in order to expand CalFresh eligibility to graduate and undergraduate students on college campuses across California. Making information, eligibility and the application process as accessible and simple as possible would reduce the number of students struggling with food insecurity. Policy needs to be geared toward making growing basic needs efforts a standard on college campuses and everyone working on those campuses should advocate for basic needs by supporting and sharing available campus resources with students.

 

Erica Martinez Resendiz is a graduate student at UC Berkeley in the School of Public Health and a graduate ambassador at the Basic Needs Center.