When Cal Poly students visit Kelly Condron from the CalFresh Outreach Program, they’re often shocked to learn how many of their peers are facing food insecurity.
A comprehensive California State University-wide basic needs study released Feb. 7 showed that 26.9 percent of Cal Poly students surveyed reported food insecurity in the last year.
It’s relatively low compared to the 41.6 percent of food-insecure students across the CSU system, but for a university that is among the most affluent in California, it’s easy to understand students’ surprise.
As the CalFresh outreach coordinator managing a staff that helps guide students in need through the complicated process of applying for sustainable food assistance, Condron interacts with Cal Poly students dealing with the issue on a regular basis.
Still, according to the CSU study, many more Cal Poly students who could be eligible for the food assistance program aren’t aware of it. Nearly 40 percent of students surveyed “had never heard of this service,” and 49.5 percent were aware of CalFresh but never applied. At Cal Poly, more than 53 percent had never heard of CalFresh.
“Cal Poly is in a really unique situation, because the income and demographics are not representative of the entire CSU system,” said Condron, a second-year graduate student.
CalFresh, nationally known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), is a “federally mandated, state-supervised and county-operated government entitlement program that provides monthly food benefits to assist low-income households in purchasing the food they need to maintain adequate nutritional levels,” according to the California Department of Social Services.
And need for the program is rising. In addition to the number of food-insecure students at Cal Poly, 12.3 percent reported being homeless at one point in the last year, and visits to the campus food pantry have risen 600 percent since it opened in 2014.
Aydin Nazmi, who serves as Cal Poly’s CalFresh program director, said demand for the resource on campus has “skyrocketed” as food insecurity has become more openly discussed and awareness has increased.
“In academic terms, we know that one of the most sure ways out of poverty, one of the most sure ways for socioeconomic growth, is a higher education degree,” Nazmi said. “So, ironically, if you don’t get that higher education degree because, for example, you don’t have a place to live, you don’t have enough to eat, then we’re not helping break the cycle.”
Nazmi said his department serves as a liaison between Cal Poly students and the CalFresh application process. Outreach staff are available to help students apply online from 10 a.m. until 4 p.m. Mondays, and 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. Fridays in the campus Health Center.
This year, 240 students have visited drop-in hours and 134 have signed up, Condron said.
“It’s really hard when students are not eligible,” Condron said. “We’ve had students cry in drop-in hours. They said they have $20 in their bank account, they don’t know what they’re going to do. They thought they would qualify but they didn’t meet these really tough exemptions for a lot of students.”
On the state level, California’s participation rates in SNAP/CalFresh ranks among the lowest in the U.S., according to the CSU’s CalFresh Outreach Overview.
The overview estimates that 3 million Californians are eligible but do not participate in the CalFresh program. With that, California loses $2.9 billion per year in federal benefits and $5.2 billion annually in economic activity.
“It’s a huge income stream for the community,” said Joy Pedersen, Cal Poly’s associate dean of students for student support, success and retention. “These are federal dollars that then get funneled through our community members into our economy.”
Just 70 percent of those eligible for CalFresh in California participate in the program, a lower participation rate than all other states except Utah (69 percent), North Dakota (62) and Wyoming (59), according to the most recent federal data.
“It’s low-lying fruit, I think, for many students that are eligible,” Nazmi said. “The average single-person college student gets about $150 a month to spend on groceries, which is a lot. From zero or very little to $150, what 18- or 19-year-old kid couldn’t use $150?”
In order to receive benefits, applicants who meet income qualifications must also meet one of the following criteria:
▪ Work a minimum of 20 hours a week.
▪ Be approved for state or federal work study.
▪ Have parental control over a dependent under the age of 6, or between 6-12 with no adequate child care.
▪ Be a recipient of CalWORKs.