New law to bring the dietary benefits of CalFresh to more students

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Photo: Ashley A. Smith

A UC Berkeley campus pantry offers free groceries for students who need access to food and assistance with CalFresh apps.

Thousands of students in California may soon qualify for CalFresh, the state food program that provides an average of nearly $ 6 billion per year in benefits, thanks to a recently adopted state law.

On average, more than 127,000 California students receive CalFresh funds each year, according to a report by the State Department of Social Services. The program, formerly known as Food Stamps, is designed to provide cash for groceries to California residents, with students receiving up to $ 250 per month. The same report, however, estimates that the number of eligible students is much higher – between 416,000 and nearly 700,000.

University students are generally eligible for CalFresh if they work at least 20 hours per week or meet one of the nearly ten work exemptions.

Assembly Bill 396, introduced by Assembly Member Jesse Gabriel (D-Woodland Hills), reinforced a key work exemption that students can meet to qualify for CalFresh benefits.

This exemption focuses on campus-based programs aimed at increasing a student’s employability through internships, apprenticeships, or seminars that teach resume writing or other skills. But students using this type of work exemption when applying for CalFresh may get it from programs certified by the state Department of Social Services. AB 396 requires those campus-based programs within the California State University system and the California Community College system to achieve certification within specific timelines.

As more and more programs are certified, students will have more options to apply for work exemption programs. Currently, 297 programs at colleges and universities in California are approved for certification. Corn The Century Foundation, a Washington, DC-based think tank, has estimated that more than 9,000 educational programs in the California Community College system alone are eligible.

One of the lingering hurdles, however, is the difficulty of ensuring that every potentially food insecure student knows that they might qualify for one of the exemptions.

Nehemiah Rodriguez received CalFresh benefits for approximately two years, until his recent promotion to interim executive director of Project Rebound in Sacramento State, a program that provides support and educational resources to formerly incarcerated students.

“Acquiring food – it’s a big cost. It costs time and planning, having to go carry the box [from the food pantry] and have a compromise between you have to eat what’s there, ”he said.

In addition to the certification issue, eligibility rules and student exemptions can become a complex hurdle for those looking to access CalFresh.

“CalFresh, if you go to school, gets a little tricky,” said Michael Morenola, a sophomore at San Diego State University.

Morenola knew he was eligible for CalFresh when he enrolled in his Industrial and Organizational Psychology program, but he described his CalFresh application process as difficult and frustrating. Those days included numerous phone calls to his county office, he said, to make sure his eligibility documents were processed.

But these benefits were crucial during the pandemic.

“It would be more of a constraint. Now I don’t have to worry about what I’m going to eat anymore, ”he said. “I think, because I still haven’t found a job, maybe I should have thought more about where my next meal came from if I hadn’t had it.”

Brandi Simonaro, co-director of the Center for Healthy Communities in Chico State, works with approximately 50 college campuses across the state to increase the number of applications for students who need access to CalFresh.

“There will always be students who might not understand what it means to be eligible, or they might need more information from the outreach teams,” said Simonaro. “They may still need that help getting through the application process, as it can be quite daunting to do at times, and having to go through the interview and submit checks can be really stressful.”

The status report who believed that the number of students receiving CalFresh benefits was also affected by complex rules and work exemptions.

“It quickly became evident that the complexity of the student eligibility rule and rule exemptions, coupled with data limitations, make it difficult to obtain this state-level estimate,” the authors wrote. of the report.

The complexity of the eligibility and application process is partly mitigated by people like Nubia Goodwin, who serves as the Basic Needs Coordinator at the University of California, Davis. Goodwin’s work includes outreach and marketing to students to help them understand the CalFresh eligibility process.

“When we have these exemptions… we can really target who we’re talking to and who we’re working with to sign up for CalFresh benefits,” Goodwin said. Her The team does targeted social media, print advertising and infographic design on CalFresh and other programs, in addition to guiding students through their applications.

Simonaro’s job is to ensure that the college campuses she works with and their respective counties are well informed about changes regarding student eligibility for CalFresh.

“When something like this passes, it’s not an instant change overnight, and there still has to be that runoff,” she said. “We will still have challenges, even after everything is ‘implemented’ … so we certainly anticipate that the actual implementation may take longer than is said.”

Work exemptions are often the only way for students to access CalFresh, and the state considers more than 416,000 students in the state meet the criteria for at least one exemption.

During the pandemic, the state temporarily added to the list of work exemptions that could help a student qualify for CalFresh. One of these temporary exemptions is for students who have applied for financial aid and have an “estimated family contribution of $ 0,” which means their family cannot provide financial support.

Nathan Godinez, who studies philosophy, psychology and communications at the State of San Diego, could not access CalFresh until this temporary exemption. He said his first CalFresh application around 2018 was denied because his income exceeded the maximum. But the money in his bank account came from loans, he said, and he had other basic needs to pay.

“I told them I was broke; I need money. You know, I need food. At the time, I was living on loans, ”said Godinez, a full-time student. “So, yeah, I have money in my bank, but I told him I didn’t have any cash. That’s how I was turned down.

But then he heard about the temporary exemption for those who do not receive money from their families and submitted a second request. This time it was approved. All he needs now is to submit additional documents to prove his enrollment as a student.

“I fully support myself, so have [extra money] that I don’t have to worry for a month, you know, it’s like taking a day off that I need for my mental health, for school, ”Godinez said. “It’s more freedom.”

Bella Arnold, a sophomore at California State University, Long Beach and a member of EdSource’s California Student Journalism Corps, contributed reporting for this story.

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