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A Quick Guide To Changes To College Student Eligibility For CalFresh

A woman with a ponytail, wearing a black face mask, dark blue top and light blue jeans, holds a clipboard as she stands beside a chalkboard sign that reads Pop-Up pantry. In the background food items are arrayed on a long table with storage shelves behind them.
A food pantry on the UC Berkeley campus offers free groceries for students who need access to food and support with CalFresh applications.
(Ashley A. Smith
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Starting on June 10, California’s food benefits program is ending two temporary rules that allowed a greater number of college students to qualify: those eligible for federal or state work-study and those whose families cannot contribute financially to their education.

State officials and school staff are urging students across the state to apply for CalFresh as soon as possible. After June 10, their CalFresh application will need to qualify under the stricter set of rules that was the norm prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The program, once known as food stamps, is designed to provide money for groceries to California residents, with a single college student eligible for up to $281 per month, making it a significant amount for low-income students.

There were over 143,000 low-income students relying on CalFresh for food assistance as of September 2021, which is the last month for which the state has a “complete statewide figure,” according to a Department of Social Services spokesperson. The lack of a more recent statewide number is due to a data merging process that several state agencies, including the one overseeing CalFresh, are currently undergoing.

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A 2020 state report, however, estimated that the number of California college students who are eligible under the permanent rules is much higher — between 416,000 and nearly 700,000.

The state has not tracked how many students became eligible for the program under the temporary eligibility rules. Therefore, they do not have an estimate of how many students will no longer be eligible for the food assistance benefits once the temporary rules end in June.

This quick guide explains the changes happening to CalFresh and how they may impact students across California.

Why does student access to CalFresh matter?

A 2018 study of basic needs across the 23-campus California State University system found that over 40% of their 484,000 students at the time reported experiencing food insecurity. Across the state’s community colleges, a 2019 study found that 50% of the 40,000 students surveyed had recently experienced food insecurity. And in the University of California system, 39% of undergraduate students in 2020 said they were food-insecure.

“I may be biased, but I do believe we have one of the best public higher education systems in the country, but the caveat is it’s expensive and not a lot of students have the access to it because of financial insecurities,” said Jasmine Prasad, who is attending San Francisco State after transferring from Folsom Lake Community College near Sacramento.

What changes are coming to CalFresh?

From the onset of the pandemic, two temporary eligibility rules were implemented for college students: They have qualified for CalFresh if they are eligible for state or federal work-study and if they have an “expected family contribution” of zero dollars toward financial aid.

But with the federal COVID-19 public health emergency declaration ending in May, these two temporary eligibility rules for CalFresh will also be ending.

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There is a second change tied to the end of the COVID-19 emergency support that’s likely now impacting families across the state: CalFresh beneficiaries have received an increased amount of benefits each month authorized throughout the pandemic. Those “emergency allotments,” as they’re called, ended in February. The final allotments for families receiving this increase of at least $95 per month were released in March.

Can students still qualify under these temporary rules?

Yes. In fact, students are being urged to apply as soon as possible if they think they may qualify for CalFresh under the two temporary rules.

Typically, a CalFresh application must be recertified every year. This means that if a student’s application is approved prior to June 10, they may be eligible to receive up to a year’s worth of food benefits before a recertification is required.

What’s the last day students can apply under the temporary exceptions?

For students who do not currently have CalFresh, eligibility under the temporary exceptions ends on June 10.

Students who already have CalFresh need to recertify their eligibility every year. If they were eligible for the program under the two temporary rules, they should check if their recertification can be submitted prior to June 10. If so, they may qualify for up to a year’s worth of benefits.

What are the permanent eligibility rules?

College students are typically eligible for CalFresh if they meet the regular rules that everyone, whether a student or not, must meet in addition to at least one of more than a dozen eligibility criteria. Understanding the long list of eligibility criteria for students has long been seen as a significant barrier for students.

Many college campuses now have CalFresh coordinators who assist students in understanding their eligibility and applying.

But access for students remains limited and complex, often leading to the students not being aware of their eligibility.

Prasad, for example, was eligible for CalFresh but did not realize it until she was part of a statewide work group that sought to establish recommendations that may widen access to CalFresh for students.

Before receiving those benefits, food access was a regular stressor in her life.

“It’s a lot of penny-pinching where it’s like, ‘How can I really spread out the money to buy groceries that I need and make sure that I’m able to access food and not stress,’” said Prasad. “I benefited a lot because I no longer had the stress of: ‘Am I going to have enough money to buy food that will last me until I get more money?’”

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