Students at Quarry Plaza at UC Santa Cruz
Students at Quarry Plaza at UC Santa Cruz.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)
Higher Ed

New law to bring CalFresh food benefits to more college students

About 127,000 California college students receive money to help with groceries every month, but a state report estimates that the number who are eligible is much higher — between 416,000 and nearly 700,000.

Thousands of college students in California might soon find they qualify for CalFresh, the state’s food program that provides an average of nearly $6 billion annually in benefits, thanks to a recently passed state law.

On average, more than 127,000 California college students receive CalFresh funds each year, according to a report by the state Department of Social Services. The program, once known as food stamps, is designed to provide money for groceries to California residents, with college students receiving up to $250 per month. The same report, however, estimates that the number of college students who are eligible is much higher — between 416,000 and nearly 700,000.

College students are typically eligible for CalFresh if they work at least 20 hours per week or meet one of nearly a dozen work exemptions.

Assembly Bill 396, introduced by Assemblyman Jesse Gabriel, strengthened a key work exemption that students can meet to qualify for CalFresh benefits.

That exemption focuses on campus-based programs aimed at increasing a student’s employability via internships, apprenticeships or seminars that teach resume-writing or other skills. But students using this type of work exemption when applying for CalFresh can get it from programs that are certified by the state Department of Social Services. AB 396 makes it a requirement for such campus-based programs within the California State University system and the California Community College system to seek the certification within specific timeframes.

As more programs are certified, students will have more options to apply to programs for work exemptions. Currently, 297 programs at California colleges and universities are approved for the certification. But The Century Foundation, a think tank based in Washington, estimated that over 9,000 educational programs within the California Community College system alone are eligible.

One of the ongoing obstacles, however, is the difficulty of ensuring that every potentially food insecure college student knows they might qualify for one of the exemptions.

Nehemiah Rodriguez received CalFresh benefits for about two years, up until his recent promotion to interim executive director for Sacramento State’s Project Rebound, a program that provides educational support and resources for formerly incarcerated students.

“Food acquisition — that’s a big cost. It costs time and scheduling, having to go carry the box [from the food pantry] and having a trade-off of you have to eat what’s there,” he said.

In addition to the certification issue, the eligibility rules and exemptions for college students can become a complex barrier for those seeking access to CalFresh.

“CalFresh, if you’re going to school, does get kind of tricky,” said Michael Morenola, a second-year graduate student at San Diego State University.

Morenola knew he was eligible for CalFresh when he enrolled in his industrial and organizational psychology program, but he described his CalFresh application process as difficult and frustrating. Those days included many phone calls to his county office, he said, to ensure his eligibility documents were processed.

But those benefits have been crucial during the pandemic.

“It would be more of a strain. Now I never have to worry about what I’m going to eat,” he said. “I do think that, because I still haven’t found a job, I may have had to think more about where my next meal is going to come from if I didn’t have it.”

Brandi Simonaro, a co-director with the Center for Healthy Communities at Chico State, works with about 50 college campuses across the state to increase application submissions for students who need access to CalFresh.

“There’s still going to be students that might not understand what being eligible even means, or they might need more information from the outreach teams,” Simonaro said. “They may still need that assistance with getting through the actual application process because sometimes it can be pretty daunting to do, and to have to go through the interview and submit verifications can be really stressful.”

The state report that estimated the number of students receiving CalFresh benefits was also affected by the complex rules and work exemptions.

“It quickly became apparent that the complexity of the student eligibility rule and exemptions from the rule, coupled with data limitations, make it difficult to arrive at this estimate at the statewide level,” the report authors wrote.

Students head to class at UC Santa Cruz on Sept. 28, the first day of classes.
Students head to class at UC Santa Cruz on Sept. 28, the first day of classes.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

The complexity of the eligibility and application process is partly alleviated by people like Nubia Goodwin, who serves as a basic needs coordinator at the University of California, Davis. Goodwin’s job includes outreach and marketing to students to help them understand the CalFresh eligibility process.

“When we have these exemptions … we really can target who we’re addressing and who we’re working to get enrolled in CalFresh benefits,” Goodwin said. Her team does targeted social media, print advertising and infographic design about CalFresh and other programs, in addition to walking students through their applications.

Simonaro’s job includes ensuring the college campuses she works with and their respective counties are well-informed of the changes regarding student eligibility for CalFresh.

“When something like this passes, it’s not an instant change overnight, and there still has to be that trickle down,” she said. “We still will have challenges, even after it’s all ‘implemented’ … so we definitely anticipate that the actual implementation may take longer than it may say.”

Work exemptions are often the only way students can access CalFresh, and the state estimates more than 416,000 college students in the state meet the criteria for at least one exemption.

During the pandemic, the state temporarily added to the list of work exemptions that could help a student qualify for CalFresh. One of those temporary exemptions is for students who filed an application for financial aid and have a “$0 estimated family contribution,” meaning their family cannot provide financial support.

Nathan Godinez, who studies philosophy, psychology and communications at San Diego State, couldn’t access CalFresh prior to that temporary exemption. He said his first CalFresh application around 2018 was denied because his income exceeded the maximum. But the money in his bank account was from loans, he said, and he had other basic needs to pay for.

“I told them I was broke; I need money. You know, I need food. At the time I was living off loans,” said Godinez, a full-time student. “So, yeah, I got money in my bank, but I told him I had zero cash. That’s how I got denied.”

But then he heard about the temporary exemption for those who are not receiving money from their families and submitted a second application. This time, he was approved. All he needs now is to submit some additional documentation to prove his enrollment as a student.

“I support myself entirely, so having [extra money] that I don’t have to worry about a month, you know, that’s like actually getting a day off of work that I need for my mental health, for school,” said Godinez. “It’s more freedom.”