Bill Would Extend SNAP to College Students, Fight Food Insecurity

The College Student Hunger Act would allow nearly 7 million Pell Grant recipients to be eligible for SNAP benefits.
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  • Current rules prevent many college students from qualifying for SNAP benefits.
  • This proposal would open access to many low-income students.
  • The bill is an attempt to address the growing issue of food insecurity at U.S. campuses.

As the end of the semester nears and financial aid dries up for the year, food security is a top concern for about 5 million students across the U.S.

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) addresses food insecurity for many low-income Americans. However, college students have largely been barred from participating in the federal program because of strict work requirements.

A newly proposed bill, however, would include more college enrollees in SNAP and potentially lower the percentage of students experiencing food insecurity.

U.S. Rep. Al Lawson of Florida introduced the College Student Hunger Act of 2021 in October. The bill, which has 43 co-sponsors in the House of Representatives, would lower the work requirement for students to qualify for SNAP benefits and open the program up to those receiving certain kinds of federal financial aid. It would also create a pilot program to test the concept of students being able to use SNAP to purchase meals on campus.

Thomas Hilliard, senior policy analyst at the Hope Center, told BestColleges that this legislation would be the most substantial federal action aimed at addressing student hunger since the enactment of the Mickey Leland Memorial Domestic Hunger Relief Act in 1991.

"The bottom line is that it has been easily a good 30 years since the federal government has done anything to help college students in this way," Hilliard said.

What's in the College Student Hunger Act?

Currently, part- and full-time college students are not eligible for SNAP benefits unless they meet one of eight exemptions listed in the Food and Nutrition Act of 2008. Those exemptions include students who are:

  • Under the age of 18 or over the age of 50
  • Not "physically or mentally fit"
  • Assigned to a school through the requirements of the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act
  • Employed a minimum of 20 hours per week
  • Enrolled full time as a single parent with responsibility of a child under the age of 12
  • A parent with the responsibility of child under the age of 6, or with a child from 6 to 12 for whom adequate childcare is not available

Most notably, the College Student Hunger Act of 2021 would add an exemption for any student deemed eligible for a federal Pell Grant. With nearly 7 million students receiving Pell Grants each year, this could massively expand the pool of potential SNAP recipients.

The proposed bill would also open up SNAP benefits to all students with an expected family contribution (EFC) equal to zero, as determined by the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). All students classified as "independent" under the Higher Education Act would also qualify for the exemption.

Some of these proposed changes aren't too far off from a temporary update to SNAP eligibility currently in place due to the COVID-19 pandemic. As of Jan. 16, students who are eligible to participate in state or federally financed work study or who have an EFC of zero can receive SNAP benefits. However, this change will expire 30 days after COVID-19 is no longer deemed a "public health emergency" by the federal government.

Students who fit these criteria won't automatically qualify for SNAP benefits. This change in the language, however, means students will no longer be denied these benefits if they would have qualified otherwise simply because they are enrolled in a college or university.

Lastly, the proposed bill changes the minimum employment time to be exempt from the exclusion from 20 hours per week to just 10.

SNAP Could Make Big Difference

Hilliard of the Hope Center argues that the current exemptions carry with them antiquated ideas about what makes a college student. This proposed bill would go a step closer to bridging that gap, specifically with the reduction in necessary work hours per week in order to qualify.

"Reducing the work requirement makes it conceivable for students to have a small part-time job and get SNAP," he said. Under the current 20 hours required per week, it's very difficult for a student to balance a full-time class load with their work commitments.

The most important proposed change, Hilliard said, is expanding eligibility to those receiving Pell Grants and students with a $0 EFC.

Not only does this cover many low-income students who rely on Pell Grants to afford college, but it goes one step further. He explained that the $0 EFC exemption means that those who lost eligibility for Pell Grants — perhaps because of student loan defaults or for violating other requirements — may still get SNAP benefits while in college.

Hilliard said this proposed law could go a long way in solving some of the food insecurity problems plaguing many college campuses.

"When we look at a lot of interventions to support student food security, providing access to SNAP is one of the few that's really been demonstrated to make a difference," he said. "Our organization puts a lot of effort into expanding SNAP eligibility because it works. There is real evidence that it makes a difference."

The next important step, if enacted, would be to actually inform students they may now be eligible for SNAP. The bill does include that any student who completes the FAFSA and who qualifies for a Pell Grant, or those with an EFC of zero, must be notified by the state they live in that they may qualify for SNAP.

Who Would Be Eligible for SNAP?

Approximately 1 in 3 college students surveyed in a fall 2020 study from the Hope Center reported they experienced food insecurity in the past 30 days. Also, 1 in 3 said they struggled to learn because they could not access or afford balanced meals.

The current SNAP restrictions are leaving many of those students without a clear solution, the Hope Center found. Only 1 in 5 students facing food insecurity utilize SNAP. Even those who do qualify for the program often don't receive it because of the unclear rules for students, as shown by a 2019 study from the Government Accountability Office that found 57% of students who are food insecure and qualify for SNAP do not receive it.

Students of color are also much more likely to experience this issue, according to the Hope Center.