In Stephanie Land’s brave and important new book CLASS (a follow-up to her memoir MAID, the basis for an award-winning Netflix series) she explains that even though she knew a college degree was the best chance she and her 6-year-old daughter had of escaping poverty, being deprived of food made it nearly impossible. The work requirements in the Supplementary Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the program that helped feed her family, declared her undeserving of its support if she devoted time to learning rather than working— as if school weren’t work. “Nothing made me question my life choices more than knowing that my hours spent cleaning other people’s toilets to put myself through college weren’t enough—and that my hours spent earning a degree didn’t matter…they were telling me that higher education was something I simply could not afford.”
When she recently visited the Free Library of Philadelphia, I asked Stephanie how she wanted colleges to respond to that problem. She suggested that they think hard about who their students are and what they truly need to succeed, then act to support them. Pointing to new federal data proving that on average 23% of college students experience food insecurity – and that rate is 37% for single parents like Stephanie—she stressed the importance of modernizing SNAP so that it doesn’t undercut higher education’s mission and trap people in poverty.
Today, thousands of institutions recognize that millions of students need – and certainly deserve – access to food assistance. These schools and their leaders have an extraordinary opportunity to work with the federal government to support those students—and it doesn’t require new institutional spending or a new Higher Education Act.
Now up for reauthorization, the farm bill is a package of legislation setting policy and authorizing spending for the US Department of Agriculture. About 80% of the bill is devoted to nutrition programs, including SNAP. The process is now underway on Capitol Hill, and advocacy for reform is our best chance to ensure students get the support they so badly need.
SNAP helps make food affordable by providing subsidies that people use at many grocery and corner stores. The average benefit for a single adult is around $2,000 a year and it is higher for students with children. Colleges and universities can make the benefits even more meaningful by accepting SNAP on campus (Oregon State began doing this in 2016 and Penn State recently began as well) and/or exempting SNAP recipients from meal plan requirements. (The U.S.D.A. offers guidance on how to apply to allow students to use SNAP on campus.) Unlike food pantries or meal swipe programs, economist Dr. Craig Gunderson notes that SNAP affords students the dignity of choosing what, when, and where they would like to eat, which is especially important for busy adults. As I recently explained to trustees, this is an easy and obvious win—SNAP is paid for by the federal government and there is no limit to the number of qualified students at a given college or university who may enroll.
Yet there is an enormous SNAP gap in program utilization. A few years ago my research team estimated that less than one in five food-insecure students used the program, and recently Bryce McKibben and Tom Hilliard suggested that the number was even lower. For example, they highlight Virginia, where only 11% of likely-eligible students received SNAP—just 3% of undergraduates. In 2018 the U.S. Government Accountability Office declared this a major concern, noting that the “substantial federal investment in higher education is at risk if college students drop out because they cannot afford basic necessities like food.”
The main reason students don’t get the help they need from SNAP is that the program is hard to understand, especially when it comes to eligibility for students, and it is unnecessarily difficult to access thanks to the work requirements that stymied Stephanie. These administrative burdens, which I believe are least partly intentional and reflect the same racialized paternalism and austerity mindset that we see in welfare policy and the financial aid policy too, effectively keep students who are trying to escape poverty from achieving that goal.
During the pandemic Congress took bipartisan action to reduce those burdens, expanding access to SNAP for millions of people, including students. This helped many more undergraduate and graduate students eat and it helped feed their children too—but that support has disappeared.
The stakes are high. Food insecurity exacerbates mental and physical health challenges, reduces the energy available for learning and classroom engagement, and heightens the odds that people never attend college or leave without degrees in hand. Increasing SNAP access is an academic intervention that pays off—a recent rigorous study, led by Dr. Katharine Broton in partnership with Bunker Hill Community College in Boston and funded by the Kresge Foundation and the Boston Foundation, found that even modest food subsidies (less than $1,000 per student) improve graduation rates. That’s why Representative Jimmy Gomez (D-California) and 131 other members of Congress are advocating for the EATS Act (Enhance Access to SNAP), which contains commonsense changes to rules that should be integrated into the next farm bill.
Working with Agriculture to support a college attainment agenda that is central to our national claims about meritocracy and the so-called American dream is a smart move. It would help address an economic problem, a public health problem, and a social problem that if not solved will harm the nation for generations. Please engage your government affairs teams, staff, faculty, students, and alumni to speak up for college students in the farm bill reauthorization. Share these excellent basic needs toolkit by Higher Learning Advocates with as many people as possible. Be sure to also learn about the ways the farm bill should invest in Historically Black Colleges and Universities, which have been horrifically shortchanged, and where food insecurity is especially prevalent. And as you plan for future action, please know what we also need to modernize the National School Lunch Program, which needs to support students in higher education. As longtime basic needs champion and equity avenger Dr. Keith Curry, president of Compton College, keeps reminding us, it’s time to level up and embrace our collective responsibility as a sector that makes nearly daily proclamations about social mobility, equity, and diversity.
Let’s show Stephanie and students like her that they matter—and that starts by getting them the food they need to succeed.