Addressing Chronic Food Insecurity Among California College Students

Research on hunger on California (and America’s) college campuses began appearing almost like a bad rash in the mid 2010s.  Multiple entities have approached the emergent problem of hunger on America’s college campuses including many recommendations and suggestions for addressing this all but invisible problem. The 2020 COVID-19 Public Health Emergency resulted in a temporary loosening of the SNAP (known as CalFresh in California) rules that limited access to the program for most individuals and households that consisted of full-time adult college students, most especially those at the community college level.

What is notable are these are  generally accepted and well known facts about California  community college students:

— are the most racially diverse group of higher education students;

— are most likely to include people who are the first in their families to attend college;

— are seeking education and training to advance career and work goals;

— are located close to low-income communities; and

— are readily accessible using public transportation.

In many counties, community colleges are the rare institutions of higher learning that offer welcoming and even supportive environments for “non-traditional” students namely parents of young and school-aged children; recent immigrants; individuals with disabilities or who have faced challenges such as growing up in the foster care system or involvement with the criminal  justice system. 

A Sad History Based On Negative Assumptions: Few of the articles I reviewed explain that, as part of its original design in the late 1960’s and more formally in 1977, what we now know as the SNAP program prohibited two groups from inclusion in the program — full time college and university students and striking workers. 

See excerpts from reports prepared by the California Community College Chancellor’s Office,

College students and striking workers were two groups specifically excluded from participation in federal food assistance program known as Food Stamps and  based on household  income. The exclusion of striking workers clearly was based on a desire not to provide food assistance to people who actually had jobs but who were engaging in the more extreme version of collective bargaining.  Strikes, and thereby strikers, were “bad”.  To be fair, most union organizations did have “strike pay” benefits, modest, but still money for food and day-to-day expenses. 

The exclusion of college level adult students from the Food Stamp program has roots that touch on social biases including anti-intellectualism as well as race and gender biases.  College students were viewed by political elites and others in the late 1960’s and 1970’s as undeserving of basic food assistance.   The social/political/cultural biases against full-time students were historically reflected in popular culture especially movies and eventually television.  The film trailer for the now “cringe fest” titled  “Bedtime for Bonzo” which features Ronald Reagan (the soon to be union leader and future U.S military Commander In Chief) as a psychology professor experimenting with rearing a chimpanzee as if the animal were a human child.  So of course he hires a female housekeeper.

Attitudes toward women college students (quaintly known as coeds) were portrayed in the 2003 Julia Roberts film Mona Lisa Smile about a 1950’s era art professor at a “women’s” college. The actors portraying Robert’s students were universally the daughters of the upper middle class fulfilling their socially well-defined roles as “husband seekers”.   There are no women of color among the student population (seriously not even in the distance shots).  None of these young women, as portrayed, would appear to have any future other than mothers and marital helpmeets.  Seriously, what else would one do with an art history degree?

The sources of anti-student bias were fed by many negative elements, assumptions and prejudices including student resistance to the Viet Nam war, youth involvement in the movements for racial equality and grass root labor campaigns.  This disapproval of youth in higher education became set in concrete, so to speak, by the Food Stamp Act of 1977.  However, the economic upheavals of the late 20th and early 21st centuries sent many middle class families into poverty.  The new family ideal, the two parent – two income family replaced the whole “Father Knows Best”/ “Leave It To Beaver” fantasy with images like the families on “Good Times” and the original “Roseanne”.

 Men even began to enter the fields of nursing and primary school teaching.  These were fields with  predominantly female workforces that had previously been some of the few jobs available to college educated women who were often directed to these fields by the customs of the 1930s – early 1960s.  And then there were computers. These shifts in the vocational tides that define what is and what is not  “good work” coincided with a shift in welfare and income maintenance policies that recognized the importance of retraining a workforce by adding academics to professional credentials (as happened in nursing).

These shifts in the social tides that define “good work” coincided with a shift in welfare and income maintenance policies that recognized the importance of retraining a workforce and adding academics to professional credentials (as happened in nursing).  The plan developed during the administration of Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis in the late 1980s would be championed by Arkansas Democratic Gov. Bill Clinton (another future U.S. Commander in Chief)  These plans were co-opted by the emerging political leaders of The New Right as it took the form of the Gingrich/Ryan “Contract With America”, known by some of as “The Contract On The Poor”.

By the late 1990’s the Congressionally driven fad of welfare reform as workfare grew out of the ever present philosophy of only providing base level assistance to the “deserving poor”.  What the workfare enthusiasts did not consider was that by the mid-1990s being a high school graduate was no longer sufficient to establish even a de minimis level of personal financial independence not to mention the ability to support a family with children at the outset of the 21st century.[1]

But enough of my self-indulgent musings about how we got to where we are now:  Maybe more later.

How Do We Make It Easier For California Higher Education Students To Respond to Chronic Food Insecurity

The California Budget & Policy Center’s article “College Students Deserve Better Access To Food Assistance and its companion piece, a 2015 Study of chronic student food insecurity published by the University of California, Agriculture [2]and Natural Resources were the primary sources of this article.  Both include a short list of pragmatic options which could  address chronic food insecurity among community college and California State University level students.[3]

CCWRO has been part of a coalition of groups who have opted for a legislative approach to reducing barriers to relief from student food insecurity.  As the CCWRO “Bill and Budget” tracker indicate, some of our efforts have succeeded. But the reinstatement of SNAP assistance barriers offers a simple solution: reinstate the COVID-19 food access relief measures. The SNAP flexible eligibility rule ended in June 2023 with a one year extension of eligibility. [4]As the published reports indicate that at least half of low-income higher education students experience food insecurity.  These studies and these numbers argue strongly in favor of creating access rules, perhaps through a USDA waiver, as the problem is national and increased access can now be measured using the PHE SNAP program utilization data.  So a few suggestions;

 The higher education student population eligible for CalFresh benefits are very young, about half are under 25.   This argues in favor of;

—  program and eligibility information tailored to communicate with young people;

—  more social media platform based information;

— soliciting youth role models to speak in support of CalFresh utilization;

— promoting CalFresh utilization by people who have contact with youth participating in higher education.

Provide clear information about the CalFresh program tailored to specific communities of interest and concern 

— Inform immigrant communities that CalFresh utilization will not impact their “public charge” status;

— Clearly explain the fair hearing process because just asking for a hearing will get a case file reviewed by a county welfare department supervisor;

— Connect with other partners who focus on food and nutrition issues i.e. farmers’ markets; local chambers of commerce; health care and wellness focused organizations and projects.

— Work with campus faculty about using chronic food insecurity among students as part of their curricula.  This could offer opportunities for students to gain marketable skills and experiences that may lead to employment opportunities.

In a 2015 study conducted by the Social Security Administration the value of a college education was quantified. After controlling for key socio-demographic variables that influence earnings and the probability of college completion, the differences in lifetime earnings by educational attainment are reduced, but still substantial

Regression estimates show that men with bachelor’s degrees would earn $655,000 more in median lifetime earnings than high school graduates. Women with a bachelor’s degrees would earn $450,000 more in median lifetime earnings than high school graduates.


One of the most interesting positions on addressing chronic food insecurity among student populations is this: public higher education is an investment in both an individual and a community’s future well-being.  It is an investment in community well being on many levels.  Oh, and it reduces poverty. 

Author and researcher Daphne Macklin is an experienced administrative benefits advocate.  One of her first cases challenged the inclusion of an adult child and her income with respect to the CalFresh eligibility of her two minor half siblings.  It’s sort of  been fixed.  See


[2] College Students Deserve Better Access to Food Assistance – California Budget and Policy Center

[3] I propose that the term “student hunger” be replaced with the term “chronic food insecurity” for post secondary students.