March 4, 2021

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, research showed that food insecurity was a serious problem on college campuses across the nation, especially among students of color, lower-income students, and students at community colleges. The already too-high rates and harmful consequences of food insecurity have only been exacerbated during the pandemic as college students face disruptions to their learning and employment due to campus closures and the economic downturn. According to a Hope Center survey conducted last spring, about one-third of college students who were employed lost their jobs due to the pandemic. 

College students struggling against hunger face a number of obstacles in accessing the food assistance they need, including stigma, lack of information on available resources, ineligibility for nutrition assistance, and barriers to seeking assistance even for those who are eligible. These barriers are particularly apparent in the low participation rates in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) among this population. 

In addition to meeting the income and other qualifications that SNAP applicants must satisfy, students attending college half time or more must overcome a general bar to SNAP eligibility that requires 20 hours or more per week of work. There are, however, important exemptions for college students, including two temporary exemptions recently issued as part of a COVID-19 relief package.

Under the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021, passed in December, Congress has temporarily extended SNAP eligibility to two groups of college students enrolled at least half time in higher education:

  1. students who are eligible for federal or state work-study (regardless if the student is actively engaged in work-study); and
  2. students with an “Expected Family Contribution” (EFC) of $0 in the current academic year (including students eligible for the maximum Pell Grant).

The temporary exemptions will be in effect until 30 days after the COVID-19 public health emergency has been lifted. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has issued guidance to state agencies with detailed information on implementing the new SNAP student provisions. The U.S. Department of Education has amplified that message

To support these recent changes to SNAP eligibility, a number of state agencies and anti-hunger organizations have already developed or updated their SNAP resources targeting college students. For example, 

  • Hunger Solutions New York updated their SNAP student eligibility checklist and promotional flyer to reflect recent state and federal changes;
  • Mass Legal Services has compiled a variety of college student resources, including frequently asked questions on eligibility and verification rules during COVID-19 and a letter to college students from the Massachusetts Department of Higher Education with information on the temporary exemptions; and
  • New Jersey Higher Education Student Assistance Authority developed a promotional flyer to notify students of the new exemptions.

Anti-hunger advocates, higher education institutions, and other stakeholders should actively engage with their state agencies in efforts to connect college students to SNAP, especially in light of the temporary exemptions that will expand SNAP eligibility during these unprecedented times.