Majority of California College Students Eligible for CalFresh Do Not Enroll: Report

A new report found that an estimated 235,000 eligible students did not take advantage of the food assistance program in fall 2019.
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Published on June 7, 2024
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CalFresh volunteers Patrick Dooley, Alex Skenderian, David Inouye, and Mike McGuinness pack bags of donated food to give to families at St. Margaret's Center in Inglewood, California. Image Credit: Allen J. Schaben / Contributor / Los Angeles Times / Getty Images

  • A new report found that a majority of eligible California college students do not receive CalFresh benefits.
  • Only 30% of eligible community college students, 22% of eligible UC undergraduates, and 29% of eligible UC graduate students were enrolled in CalFresh in fall 2019.
  • The report also found that housing status played a significant role in CalFresh eligibility.

A majority of students eligible for California's CalFresh food program, also known as the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), do not receive benefits, according to a new report released by the California Policy Lab.

CalFresh offers eligible college students up to $291 a month to use at grocery stores and farmers markets. However, students must go through an extended qualification process to ensure they meet a list of exemptions before receiving benefits.

The program also changed eligibility requirements for college students in June 2023, ending two exemptions that expanded CalFresh to college students eligible for work-study and to students whose families could not financially support their education.

The report found that in fall 2019, 16% of all California Community College (CCC) students (or 256,000 students) were likely eligible for CalFresh, compared to 31% of University of California (UC) undergraduate students (69,000 students) and 6% of UC graduate students (3,000 students).

However, most eligible students did not receive benefits, with only 30% of eligible community college students, 22% of eligible UC undergraduates, and 29% of eligible UC graduate students enrolling in CalFresh.

Depending on which system you're looking at, we found that only about 1 in 3 or 1 in 4 eligible students are receiving CalFresh benefits. That's a significant take-up gap, and our goal is that this research will help our partners and policymakers in their work to close that gap, Jesse Rothstein, co-author of the report, said in a press release.

Four UC campuses reported higher participation rates for eligible students than the UC average of 22%:

  • Santa Barbara (37%)
  • Davis (30%)
  • Merced (27%)
  • Berkeley (24%)

Across the CCC system, campuses located in the Central Valley (38%), Northern California (35%), and the Inland Empire (31%) were above the system's average participation of 30%.

The report also showed that housing status is one of the main reasons why college students get accepted or denied from the CalFresh program. Eligibility is based on the total incomes of individuals who live together and prepare meals.

While a large portion of community college students live with their families, students enrolled at a UC campus are less likely to.

Another factor identified by the report was the different versions of Cal Grant — state-specific financial aid — given to community college and UC students. The version provided to UC students typically qualifies them for CalFresh eligibility. However, the version given to CCC students does not.

In 2012, participation rates for eligible community college students were around 35%, but in the following 10 years, that percentage fell below 30%. Conversely, participation by eligible UC undergraduates rose from 5% to around 30% during those 10 years, with the sharpest increase beginning in 2017.

The report attributes the significant growth at UC to various factors, including establishing the presence of basic needs centers on campuses between 2013 and 2015 and the allocation of at least one full-time equivalent staff member focused on CalFresh at each campus.

Everyone is impacted by California's high cost of living and inflation, including college students, Shawn Brick, associate vice provost for student financial support at the UC Office of the President, said in the release.

Seeing how many eligible students are benefiting from CalFresh on each UC campus, and how many are missing out, can inform our efforts to better connect students with this critical resource.