College Students Struggle to Enroll in SNAP—but Peer Support Programs Help

As more students face food insecurity during the pandemic, student navigators at the City University of New York help clear SNAP sign-up hurdles.

The Swipe Out Hunger team in 2020. (Photo courtesy of Swipe Out Hunger)

The Swipe Out Hunger team in 2020. (Photo courtesy of Swipe Out Hunger)

Here’s how the past year has been going for America Lopez: In early March of 2020, the 33-year-old, full-time sociology student was living with her uncle and attending Lehman College in the Bronx. Then COVID-19 hit, shutting down Lehman and the other 24 campuses in the City University of New York* (CUNY) system. Lopez’s uncle decided to return to Mexico, so America joined her four siblings in their mother’s public housing apartment, attending Zoom classes on a laptop borrowed from the college. Shortly after she moved in, one of her brothers needed emergency gall-bladder surgery. Then her mother, a fruit street vendor, fell ill, possibly with COVID-19. And in September, Lopez’s 2020-21 financial aid package hit a snag, further straining the family’s finances.

Her mother and youngest sister receive SNAP, but so far, Lopez hasn’t been able to secure her own benefits. The family—all members of which are currently unemployed—have been relying on canned goods and other staples handed out by City Harvest and nearby churches; on Wednesdays, they visit a local site that offers hot meals. Last semester, Lehman College sent out monthly $50 gift cards to buy food at Target, but “it’s not really enough,” Lopez says. “We’re just limiting our milk and corn flakes and bread until I or my sister can get a job. I am really frustrated and stressed and overwhelmed.”

In January, two weeks before classes were set to start for the new semester, Lopez was alerted to a brand new CUNY-wide peer-to-peer navigator portal, run by national anti-student hunger organization Swipe Out Hunger (SOH)—one of several similar initiatives. “Specially enlisted and trained” student leaders, the email said, could help her apply for SNAP, as well as “find a range of NYC food resources.”

This kind of help is urgently needed. At CUNY, pre-pandemic, an estimated half of the 41 percent of potentially eligible students were enrolled in SNAP, and nationwide that number may have been as high as 57 percent. COVID-19 has only exacerbated the need; a December 2020 report from the research arm of ed-tech company Chegg estimated that 32 percent of America’s 20 million college students have experienced food insecurity since the pandemic began. And with many college campuses still closed, students everywhere have even less access to assistance. SNAP is critical because of the program’s reach; for every one meal an emergency food bank provides, SNAP can provide nine.

Without a navigator, it’s likely that Lopez would have abandoned the SNAP enrollment process. Instead, she filled out an online form and was soon connected with 22-year-old Christal Yu, a human services major at CUNY’s Borough of Manhattan Community College who had just started working as a navigator.

Says Lopez, “Christal sent me a message saying we [could] start the SNAP application right away. She said, ‘Yes, I can help you.’”

SNAP Snags

SNAP has stringent rules, but individual states can ask for exceptions to some of them. In October 2020, New York, for example, permanently expanded eligibility to college students enrolled half-time in technical, career, and remedial programs, closing a loophole that had left 75,000 students ineligible for benefits. Eight other states, including Michigan, have received the same exception. Meanwhile, California is working to implement an emergency waiver that would let homeless, disabled, and elderly residents, for whom preparing meals is difficult if not impossible, use SNAP to buy hot food instead of just cold grocery items during the pandemic. There are no good numbers for how many college students specifically this would—temporarily—impact, although a Hope Center report found almost 400,000 community college students in California had experienced homelessness in 2018, for example.

The COVID-19 relief bill passed by Congress in December addressed other SNAP snafus nationally, including abolishing the 20-hour-a-week work requirement for college students, many of whom lost jobs during the pandemic. Like California’s attempted waiver, this is temporary; a month after the pandemic emergency is declared over, the rule will go back to mandating that students remain employed or drop out of college if they want to keep receiving SNAP benefits.

Even with these adjustments in place, SNAP eligibility requirements can be challenging to make sense of, says Ellen Vollinger, legal director for anti-hunger nonprofit Food Research & Action Center (FRAC) in Washington, D.C. Misunderstandings about what rules do and don’t apply to whom has only depressed access, she says.

“Being a low-income college student is hard, lonely, ostracizing. For low-income, especially first-generation, college students to find networks and support each other in a college environment is powerful.”

Some advocates, like Jessica Bartholow, say SNAP rules are purposefully opaque and that the system needs to be expanded and simplified. Bartholow, who experienced homelessness and hunger herself as a college student, is chief of staff for Nancy Skinner, a California state senator who has introduced legislation to strengthen anti-hunger programs. Bartholow says on college campuses, peers can be a welcome addition to the process, since they communicate “that you’re not the only one who’s low income.” As part of California’s statewide, four-year-old Hunger Free-Campus initiative, peer navigators earn the state’s $15-an-hour minimum wage as work-study jobs.

“Being a low-income college student is hard, lonely, ostracizing,” says Bartholow. “Your family may or may not be supportive, and most of your peers are off doing fun things while you’re working a second or third job. For low-income, especially first-generation, college students to find networks and support each other in a college environment is powerful.”

Peer-to-Peer

By the time Christal Yu reached out to America Lopez, she and SOH’s three other navigators had already received about 20 hours of training, says advocacy and organizing manager Robb Friedlander, to skillfully “communicate resources for navigating this awful, horrid [SNAP] process.” Yu had also been a fellow at CUNY’s Urban Food Policy Institute, focusing on human services, community organizing, and criminal justice. But acting as a navigator was “the first time I put to use those skills I’d learned,” she says.

Since Lopez is trying to figure out how to add herself and other siblings to an existing SNAP household, her case is more complex than some others. Yu instructed her to call the Food Bank for New York City, which assists with applications and also has a special hotline for thorny questions.

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Christal Yu. (Photo by Deana Yu)

Christal Yu. (Photo by Deana Yu)

The semester was about to start and Lopez told Yu that she really needed textbooks. “[Textbooks] are ridiculously expensive—[but] we found a website for affordable textbooks online,” says Yu. “And she also mentioned that she was trying to figure out her resume and cover letters for after graduation, so I gave her contact info for [Lehman College’s] career center. She was so grateful—we [students] don’t realize we’re paying for these things that are there to help us out.”

By early February, Yu had taken on 65 CUNY clients with varying challenges—although none, yet, who’d needed her to speak in Cantonese (other navigators speak Spanish, Urdu, and Bengali). By that point in time, navigators had helped 270 students at 21 CUNY campuses—116 with SNAP applications, and 166 with other food resources including food banks and public school Grab-and-Go meals within walking distance of where they were living. It takes 30 days to process a SNAP application and longer for benefits to actually arrive, which underlines the importance of emergency food providers for getting students through lean days and weeks.

Several clients stuck out in Yu’s mind because of the depth of their need. A few students had requested mental health service recommendations. Others are “more concerned about housing—it could be a landlord issue, or they can’t afford to pay rent, which a local tenant housing official can take up” on their behalf, Yu says. Two students didn’t have documents to prove their addresses, although Yu knew from her training that “You can still apply if you’re homeless or don’t have identification—it’s [the SNAP office’s] responsibility to get you an ID.”

A Swipe Out Hunger worker stocks the shelves at a campus food pantry.

Loading the shelves of a campus food pantry. (Photo courtesy of Swipe Out Hunger.)

Meanwhile, Yu had been grappling with her own housing and food insecurity—as well as with discomfort about asking for assistance. She says that acting as a navigator for other students has been eye-opening. “They are experiencing similar things to myself. It’s normally just me feeling isolated and like things are insurmountable, and it’s really wild how little we know about each others’ lives. It’s really revealing.”

“Ten [student] advocates working limited hours connected 1,200 students to campus-based services. That tells you about the scale you need to get to 10,000, or 100,000 students. [And] the majority of students we surveyed said they would accept help from a peer.”

She’s heard from other navigators that they’re all beginning to feel more confident in contacting students and teasing out information in unobtrusive ways. “A lot of struggles are unseen, and sometimes people [also] struggle with admitting they need help,” she explains.

The navigators were also planning to hold weekly virtual workshops for each other, to share the skills they’d been accumulating along the way—such as how to address the nutritional side of food access, and ways to offer trauma-informed care (Yu’s specialty). They were thinking, too, of hosting open-to-the-public watch parties for documentaries and an upcoming food forum hosted by the mayor’s office. She thought the watch parties might create space for food justice conversations to happen, and an opportunity to alert more students about the peer network.

What success rate the program can expect is still unknown. However, SOH conducted a pilot during the spring and summer of 2020 that connected 656 students with $628,000 worth of SNAP benefits over a three-month period.

CUNY’s Urban Food Policy Institute (UFPI) piloted a similar effort in 2018 at Hostos Community College and John Jay College of Criminal Justice. UFPI director Nicholas Freudenberg says in that program, “Ten [student] advocates working limited hours connected 1,200 students to campus-based services. That tells you about the scale you need to get to 10,000, or 100,000 students. It also provides proof of concept; the majority of students we surveyed said they would accept help from a peer.”

In California, Bartholow says a conversation with peer navigators a couple of years ago revealed that they were able to help student clients make it to the end of the “SNAP application maze” 100 percent of the time. Could clients manage it without help? Their overwhelming response was, “No, it’s not possible,” she says.

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Not everyone believes the peer navigator/SNAP approach is the best or only solution to helping students. Some colleges have implemented what nonprofit Hunger Solutions Maryland director Michael J. Wilson calls a “brilliant” workaround, by scanning a student’s Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) to see who might qualify for SNAP, then reaching out to those students directly. FRAC’s Vollinger thinks there should also be expanded effort around enrolling student parents in the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), “because it doesn’t have as many barriers as SNAP,” she says.

Meanwhile, as of this writing, America Lopez had made an appointment to speak with a financial aid specialist at Lehman. She’d filled out her SNAP application but hadn’t yet found time to call FBNYC to figure out her best approach. She was gearing up for it, though, and Christal Yu was standing by to help however else she could. “I’m so thankful I can work with students so they don’t need to feel like they’re alone in this,” she says.

*Disclosure: The reporter’s spouse is employed by CUNY, though not in relation to the needs-assistance programs.

This article was updated to correct the spelling of Jessica Bartholow’s last name.

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Lela Nargi is a veteran journalist covering food policy and agriculture, sustainability, and science for outlets such as The Guardian, The Counter, City Monitor, JSTOR Daily, Sierra, and Ensia in addition to Civil Eats. She’s also the author of science books for kids. Find her at lelanargi.com and @LelaNargi. Read more >

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