Can College Students Get Food Stamps?

Tweaks to eligibility requirements during the pandemic mean more college students can receive SNAP (food stamp) benefits.
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  • Prior to the pandemic, most college students were ineligible for food stamps.
  • For the duration of the national emergency, millions of students can get aid.
  • A new bill could make independent and low-income students eligible beyond COVID-19.

Although the U.S. is one of the wealthiest countries in the world, around 13% of households in the country experienced food insecurity in 2015. A 2017 study in Annals of Anthropological Practice indicates that college students are significantly more likely to not know how they will get their next meal than the general population. About 59% of students reported facing food insecurity at some point during their time in college.

Despite the ubiquity of campus hunger, college students have been largely excluded from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Federal laws that made students attending college at least part-time ineligible sought to keep learners from harvesting public aid they didn't really need. Due to the pandemic, however, those laws have been lifted.

In 2022, students continue to lose access to work and resources through campus shutdowns. Food stamp benefits, which are temporarily extended to college students, can help them stay afloat. Beginning in January 2021, independent college students, students eligible for federal work-study, and students whose expected family contribution (EFC) is zero on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) became eligible.

A proposed bill would continue to make benefits available to college students beyond the pandemic. The College Student Hunger Act of 2021, put forward in October, would lower the work requirement for students (from 20 hours to 10) and provide food stamps to all Pell Grant recipients as well as students whose families contribute no money according to their FAFSA. The bill would also establish a pilot program to test allowing students to use the funds for on-campus dining. Current SNAP rules prohibit benefits from being used to purchase prepared food or campus meal plans.

If passed, the bill would represent the most substantial federal action taken to counter college hunger in over two decades. Including recipients of federal Pell Grants alone would expand the pool of food-stamp-eligible students by 7 million.

How to Get Food Stamps as a College Student

SNAP, formerly known as Food Stamps, is paid through Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) cards that work like debit cards and can be used to buy food.

Every state has its own application form residents must fill out in order to receive SNAP benefits. Apply through the nearest SNAP office in your state of residence using the USDA national map. You can also call your state's SNAP hotline number. Applicants receive notice of whether or not they are found eligible for benefits within 30 days.

If you are eligible, you will receive an EBT card and be notified of how long you may receive monthly benefits, known as a certification period. The amount of money loaded onto an EBT card for each month in the certification period varies based on income and expenses.

SNAP income and resource limits are updated annually. From Oct. 1, 2021 through Sept. 30, 2022, a household of one may net up to $1,074 monthly (income after expenses) and receive up to $250 per month. (Allotments are different in Alaska and Hawaii.) During the pandemic, SNAP benefits may increase.

SNAP benefits may be used to buy any food items:

  • Fruits and vegetables
  • Meat, poultry, and fish
  • Dairy products
  • Breads and cereals
  • Snack foods and non-alcoholic beverages
  • Food-producing seeds and plants

SNAP benefits may NOT be used to buy:

  • Beer, wine, liquor, cigarettes, or tobacco
  • Vitamins, medicines, and supplements
  • Live animals (except fish and shellfish)
  • Foods that are hot at the point of sale
  • Pet food
  • Cleaning supplies, paper products, and other household supplies
  • Hygiene items, cosmetics

What Students Qualify for Food Stamps?

Prior to the pandemic, most students enrolled in college at least part-time were not eligible for SNAP unless they met certain specific exemptions:

  • 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 a child under the age of 12
  • Enrolled as a parent with a child under the age of 6, or with a child aged 6-12 for whom childcare is not available

The Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021 temporarily expanded student eligibility beginning January 16, 2021 through the end of the declared public health emergency. While the old rules restricted eligibility to students actively participating in state- or federally-funded work-study, the new rules include all students who are eligible for work-study.

The new rules also extend eligibility to students whose EFC is zero — their family does not supply any money for their education or living expenses as reported on the FAFSA. College students may show proof of eligibility under the temporary rules through their financial aid award letter, Student Aid Report, or a letter from their college (the same entity that decides work-study eligibility).

For students who are expecting or new mothers, other federal assistance to afford food is available through the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC). WIC offers grants for food purchases and other healthcare and nutrition benefits to low-income pregnant, breastfeeding, and postpartum people.

The Impact of College Hunger

The inability to afford food can deprive students of nutritious options, lead to physical and mental health conditions, and make concentrating difficult. Going hungry in college is directly linked to getting worse grades — students who experience food insecurity are less likely to earn A's — and taking longer to graduate. College students who deal with hunger have lower rates of degree completion.

College hunger is a widespread issue, with reverberating consequences. Diminished performance in college can mean fewer career opportunities for the rest of one's life. While more than half of students may go hungry at some point in their college careers, some student groups are at higher risk and, consequently, bear more of the continuing burdens.

Community college students, financially independent students, Pell Grant recipients, and student parents are all more likely than their peers to experience basic needs insecurity, including food insecurity.