News: Federal Policy & Advocacy

To Eat or To Learn: Policymakers Address Student Food and Housing Insecurity

Wednesday, July 31, 2019  
Posted by: Sancia Celestin, Policy Intern
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The ongoing joke about “college students live off of ramen” exposes a hidden reality: More than 30% of students are food insecure, and almost 2 million “at-risk students” did not receive Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits in 2016, even though they were eligible, according to the Government Accountability Office.

In its report, the GAO said "having a low income was consistently identified as a key risk factor for food insecurity." Other risk factors included being a first-generation college student, being a single parent, and being a former foster youth, among others.

Multiple bills were introduced in the U.S. Congress in July that call for action on college hunger.

In mid-July, Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT) and Rep. Jahana Hayes (D-CT) introduced the Closing the College Hunger Gap Act of 2019 in the Senate and House, respectively. The Senate version of the bill had five cosponsors as of July 31, including Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), and Kamala Harris (D-CA) – all 2020 presidential hopefuls. The bill would require the U.S. Secretary of Education to add questions that measure rates of food and housing insecurity to the National Postsecondary Student Aid Study (NPSAS).

Additionally, the Murphy-Hayes bill would require students to receive information about food insecurity programs based on information they submit on the FAFSA. When a student with an expected family contribution of $0 completes the electronic form, they would be sent information regarding potential eligibility for assistance under the SNAP. This would allow for a collection of data on students who are experiencing food and housing insecurity, while connecting them to resources.

In a separate but related action, Rep. Andy Levin (D-MI) and several other members of Congress, wrote a letter to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) asking it to collect information about the basic needs of college students. On July 15, NCES responded to Rep. Levin stating that it will, per his recommendation, add 10 questions on homelessness, housing, and food insecurity in the NPSAS for the 2019-20 academic year.

In like fashion, Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-OH) introduced the STOP Campus Hunger Act, which would provide enrolled students in higher education institutions with information on the most recent student eligibility guidance for SNAP and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC). The bill would also require making student eligibility guidance for SNAP and WIC publicly available on the College Navigator website on an annual basis.

Further, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) introduced the Food for Thought Act, which would create a demonstration program to address food insecurity on community college campuses. It would authorize the USDA Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) to make grants available for community college campuses to establish a free meal program for eligible students, conduct campus outreach, prepare and purchase meals, and provide information to participating students on eligibility for federal food assistance programs.

Another approach to addressing the issue of food insecurity among college students came from Sen. Warren and Rep. Al Lawson (D-FL), who introduced the College Student Hunger Act of 2019 to qualify Pell Grant-eligible and independent students for benefits under SNAP, reduce the 20 hours per-week work requirement to 10 hours, increase awareness of student eligibility of SNAP with recommended outreach practices, and pilot a SNAP student hunger program.

Soon after, Sen. Harris introduced the BASIC Act, which would establish a $500 million competitive grant program to help colleges identify and meet the basic needs of students (e.g., food, housing, transportation, child care, health care, and technology). It would require at least 25% of grants go to community colleges with a priority to go to institutions with 25% or higher Pell student enrollment, HBCUs, and other Minority-Serving Institutions. Lastly, it would require secure sharing of data to identify current students who may be eligible for federal means-tested programs.

Our students shouldn’t have to choose to go hungry in order to get their required textbooks or cover other expenses. NCAN’s affordability work shows the significant gaps in financial aid packages and has a goal to close those gaps by increasing federal and state need-based aid. Restoring the purchasing power of the Pell Grant would go a long way to providing students with enough funds to support basic needs like a place to live and food to eat.

(Photo by Rob Maxwell on Unsplash)