In the Central Valley, where hundreds of miles of fertile farmland yield a third of all the produce grown in the United States and farmers brag that they are feeding the world, college students often go hungry while trying to juggle classes and family demands.
“I don’t try to make people feel stupid … but I’m just like, it’s almost like a no-brainer. You should really take advantage of these (CalFresh food) benefits.” — Deron Walker, CalFresh student aide and Fresno State junior
Additionally, the COVID pandemic has increased food insecurity among community college and UC students, according to a recent study by the California Policy Lab.
Student leaders like Deron Walker, a Fresno City College graduate, are answering the challenge by encouraging students to sign up for CalFresh benefits. In addition, local colleges are expanding food assistance programs on their campuses.
Walker, now a junior at Fresno State majoring in computer engineering, works as a student aide with the state’s CalFresh program and conducts outreach at Fresno City College.
“So when I started with the campus outreach here on campus, like right before COVID started, their program wasn’t, I would say, doing the best they could have,” said Walker. “I don’t try to make people feel stupid … but I’m just like, it’s almost like a no-brainer. You should really take advantage of these benefits.”
While Walker encourages students to sign up for these benefits, he likes to share his story on why it’s important to receive extra help.
“I’m a testimonial type of person. I try to share with people my story like, man, I’ve been on welfare my whole life and it’s helped me,” said Walker. “It’s still helping me. It’s awesome.”
Valley Students Are the Most Food Insecure
The policy lab study indicates that the highest percentages of community college and UC students receiving CalFresh benefits reside in the Central Valley.
At the Valley’s community colleges, 17% of students received CalFresh help for the 2019-20 academic year. And, UC Merced (21.5%) and UC Santa Barbara (21%) had the highest rates of CalFresh enrollment among undergraduate students.
CalFresh is the largest food program in the state and helps provide monthly food benefits to individuals and families who may be low-income.
By taking advantage of these benefits, students and families can afford to buy nutritious food, including more fruit, vegetables, and other healthy foods.
“I would say most students just don’t feel comfortable getting it like they feel like they don’t need it or like, Oh, no, I’ll just leave that for someone else,” said Walker.
“I have to explain to them that organic food is expensive and you could actually go buy food, it’ll help you focus better in school, which in turn will give you better grades, maybe even better sleep and just a better lifestyle to where, when you do finally become successful, you’ll be able to give back what you took from the benefits.”
Pandemic Increased Food Insecurity
Heather Gray, who is an office specialist for Fresno City College, helps run the Ram Food Pantry, which is often stocked with dry goods and produce, thanks to the Central California Food Bank and private donors.
“We get a lot of fresh produce and we get that weekly and we also get huge cartons of dried goods such as cereals and chips, and we get drinks, pasta, and things like that,” said Gray.
“So when students come, there’s always a variety of things for them to choose from and it covers, I would say, 90% of the food pyramid.”
During the beginning of the COVID pandemic, the pantry had to make several changes, including switching their days and hours of operation.
While the college has an inside food pantry, operations were moved outside, and for some time, Gray said cars would line up in droves to pick up groceries.
Reedley College had a similar experience after witnessing a growing need to provide students with free food. For years, the Tiger Food Pantry made up only a small concession stand near the gymnasium but because of the pandemic, the pantry was recently expanded and moved to a larger game room.
“This is an amazing opportunity to truly meet the basic needs of our students, supported by both our college and State Chancellor’s Office, as well as the Central California Food Bank,” said Reedley College President Dr. Jerry Buckley.
According to Reedley College, students have utilized the pantry an average of 523 times per month since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
What Can Students Count on When Visiting a College Pantry?
Stories like Walker’s illustrate how college pantries and the state’s food benefits help fill a real need for many college students who may often go hungry.
“This is here to provide food to students so that they can be successful in their learning,” said Gray. “It’s to make sure that they have all the things that they need, and that includes, you know, covering things like hunger and food shortages.”
Apart from the free groceries, parenting students can also pick up baby diapers, and receive help signing up for food benefits.
Walker says that he would often walk through campus talking to students and encouraging them to sign up for CalFresh benefits but very few would sign up.
So he decided to partner with the college’s marketing department and started a mass email campaign that directed students straight to the CalFresh website by using a simple QR code.
Walker says part of this strategy has helped him sign up more than 500 students a semester.
Big Help for First-Generation College Students
Cris Monahan-Bremer, director of marketing and communications for Fresno City College says at least 60% of their students are on financial aid, and before the COVID pandemic, the percentage was even higher.
“So our school districts, Fresno Unified, Central Unified, Kerman, all the surrounding areas, they all have food programs for their students, free lunch programs, and so once those students graduate from high school, they lose that source of food,” said Monahan-Bremer. “So that’s the need we’re trying to fill when they come and they enroll here as freshmen or sophomores, and many of them are, you know, the first people in their families to come to college.”
The overall enrollment between both UC and community college students shows that Black/African Americans compared to the rest of the student population had the highest enrollment in CalFresh benefits.
Those who identified as American Indian/Alaska Native had the highest enrollment among community college students, and undergraduates who identified as Hispanic/Latino/Chicano had the highest enrollment rates of those at UC.
While many students are in severe need of food benefits, the rules on who is eligible for these benefits can be pretty complex.
According to the California Policy Lab, college students are generally required to meet additional criteria than non-students, and can potentially put them off from seeking or asking for help.
Students must meet citizenship requirements and household income limits that apply to CalFresh applicants. Once these requirements are met, students must qualify for one of a number of exemptions to be eligible to participate in the program.
Examples of exemptions include receiving a Cal Grant A or B, working twenty or more hours a week, having a child under the age of twelve, participating in a campus program to increase employability, receiving CalWORKS, or planning to not enroll in school the following term.