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California Invested In Getting More Students Access To Free Food. But CalFresh Is Still Struggling On Outreach

In a video still, a brown-skinned woman with long dark hair stands next to words that say "What is CalFresh food?"
L.A. County's Department of Public Social Services promotes CalFresh applications on its web site.
(Screenshot from LA County web site)
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There’s a lot going on at UCLA to raise awareness for CalFresh, the federal food subsidy. Students and staff are getting themselves in front of more students to tell them about the qualifications and how to apply. And this year, students scored a victory: The CalFresh debit card is now accepted around campus for students to buy groceries.

But students are still tripping over hurdles on the way to CalFresh approval.

“The county actually, before the pandemic, they used to provide [staff] to campus to serve more students,” said Nicole Nukpese, associate basic needs manager at UCLA’s Community Programs Office.

Those workers used to help students with applications and do on-the-spot interviews to find out if students qualified. But county staff haven’t been on campus since the COVID-19 pandemic started.

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How Do I Apply For CalFresh?
  • You'll need a few documents to apply to CalFresh:

    • Official identification
    • Proof of college attendance (at least half-time)
    • Proof of income
    • Proof of legal U.S. residency if you’re not a citizen (DACA students aren’t eligible)
  • You'll also need documents that show your eligibility. And you'll need some patience. Here's our guide on how to apply.

A Surge In Applications

As applications for CalFresh surge at California colleges, college staff warn that the application process remains cumbersome and bureaucratic. These difficulties can lead students to quit the application midway and create negative word of mouth.

According to data provided by L.A. County, 37,215 college students in the county received CalFresh in October 2019. Nearly three years later, in September of this year, college enrollment in the program had shot up to 63,986. That’s a 72% increase.

That growth is happening at all kinds of higher education institutions.

Heather Meninga is a nursing and psychology student at Cerritos College. She lives with her mother, stepdad, and husband. “And about two weeks ago, my daughter just moved back in,” she said. Her daughter is also enrolled at Cerritos.

Meninga receives $250 a month on her CalFresh debit card.

Three columns of data show rise in college student CalFresh enrollment from October 2019 to September 2022
Date provided by LA County's Department of Public Social Services show a rise in college student CalFresh enrollment from October 2019 to September 2022.
(Courtesy LA County Department of Public Social Services)

A Hard-To-Navigate System

“My daughter tried to apply for [CalFresh] and [county staff] wanted four or five different documents that she was waiting on,” Meninga said. Her daughter got frustrated and gave up filling out the application.

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The process wasn’t easy for Meninga either. She says that about a year and a half ago, when she applied, she waited a couple of hours on the phone with a county staffer. The application process took three months, she said. She warns students about her experience when she talks to them on campus.

Campuses are hiring students and other young adults to talk to students about CalFresh in person and online. The peer approach appears to be working, but advocates say students who share a negative experience with the application can discourage fellow students from applying.

“Counties should do better,” said State Senator Nancy Skinner.

Too Little Staff To Meet Demand

A big part of the problem is that there’s a flood of CalFresh applications from college students in the fall, and not enough county staff to handle them. Skinner used her position as chair of the senate budget committee to give counties funds last year to improve the process, including hiring more staff.

We need to do everything we can to ensure that every Californian who is eligible for food support can receive it and receive it efficiently and fast.
— California State Senator Nancy Skinner

“We need to do everything we can to ensure that every Californian who is eligible for food support can receive it and receive it efficiently and fast,” she said.

Skinner says a state working group she helped start will keep an eye on the process to see if it’s getting any better.

A Push To Improve

The working group has a list of nine strategies it's exploring, although some of them require federal action — like eliminating rules around student eligibility or integrating CalFresh with federal student aid. Some of the other things they're exploring include:

  • Improving data about college student eligibility and participation in CalFresh. There is no centralized statewide database of college students participating in CalFresh, and each of California's 58 counties implement it their own way.
  • Expand state application assistance. The California Student Aid Commission (CSAC) currently has a call center with more than a dozen full-time staff; the working group is investigating whether that can be expanded to integrate CalFresh.
  • Improve the transition from free-and-reduced-price meals to CalFresh. K-12 students in low-income circumstances are already eligible for meal assistance. That need doesn't go away when they enter college, but better coordination between colleges and high schools could help boost enrollment.

Cooperation Is Leading To Results

There are a number of reasons students can qualify for CalFresh, such as being a part-time worker, a Cal Grant recipient, a work-study student, or (in many cases) a parent. Whatever it is, though, requires documentation. That’s in addition to the requisite documents for all applicants: an official ID and proof you’re attending a college. People who are not U.S. citizens need to show proof of legal residency.

And the federal government expanded college student eligibility while COVID-19 remains a public health emergency.

Among other requirements, students also have to show they work at least 20 hours a week, and demonstrate they don’t share resources with their parents or siblings.

If students are able to focus on their education and not on meeting their basic needs, they're more likely to, you know, graduate on time.
— Jennifer Hogg, research manager, UC Berkeley’s California Policy Lab

“Having to gather this information initially for a worker to review, then have to provide that proof on a periodic basis while balancing work and school, would be challenging for any of us,” said James Bolden, public information officer for L.A. County’s Department of Public Social Services, via email.

The county gets a lot of calls about CalFresh and phone conversations take longer than the county would like, Bolden said, but staff are prioritizing college students who apply for CalFresh. L.A. County has 3,000 staff answering about 600,000 calls each month from people applying for all programs, according to Bolden.

What unites advocates on and off campus is the idea that tackling college hunger is good for the student and for society.

“If students are able to focus on their education and not on meeting their basic needs, they're more likely to, you know, graduate on time, receive a degree or certificate, [and] in the case of community college students transfer to a four-year university,” said Jennifer Hogg, research manager at UC Berkeley’s California Policy Lab.

The Lab studied what outreach works. It found that about 3% of students who were sent an email filled out a CalFresh application. But that percentage rose to nearly 5% when students received an email and a postcard.

Hogg said that Lab research shows that about 10% of community college students receive CalFresh while 12% of UC undergraduates do. UC campuses, she said, devote more funding for CalFresh outreach than community colleges, where the benefit may be needed by many more students.

What questions do you have about higher education?
Adolfo Guzman-Lopez focuses on the stories of students trying to overcome academic and other challenges to stay in college — with the goal of creating a path to a better life.