Community college leaders attending this month’s Community College National Legislative Summit heard from US Secretary of Agriculture Thomas Vilsack, who touted the Biden administration’s commitment to reducing food insecurity among college students and boosting the farm workforce .
Vilsack emphasized the impact of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as Food Stamps, which is the cornerstone of national nutrition assistance programs. College students enrolled in a state or federal work-study program and working 20 hours or more per week may participate in an accredited SNAP Education & Training (E&T) program or receive SNAP benefits if they have young children. During the Covid pandemic, Congress suspended work requirements and temporarily expanded eligibility for college students who were eligible to enter a state or federal work-study program or who did not have Title IV Expected Family Contribution (EFC). This allowed many community college students to reap the benefits and provided a lifeline for students facing food insecurity.
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Vilsack also noted an increase in SNAP program resources. In 2022, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) achieved a 21% increase in monthly SNAP benefits based on a new assessment of the Thrifty Food Plan, which assesses the cost of eating a healthy, nutrient-dense diet. The reassessment approved as part of the 2018 Farm Bill represents the first major update to diet plan calculations in decades.
The USDA has temporarily increased SNAP benefits by nearly $3 billion per month thanks to emergency quotas approved by Congress.
Keys to educating students
Vilsack also referenced important USDA nutrition assistance programs that benefit raising students, including the Special Supplemental Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), the National School Lunch and Breakfast Programs, and the Summer Food Service Program, which supports children during the school year the summer provides healthy meals.
Vilsack emphasized the importance of connecting pregnant students and students raising infants with the WIC program, which provides foods critical to infant nutrition and development. In particular, the WIC program has no job requirements or other criteria that might preclude otherwise eligible college students from participation.
While Vilsack continued to emphasize the importance of SNAP benefits in promoting food security, he touted these programs as critical investments in intergenerational educational success and as a means of reducing overall household nutrition budgets.
SNAP Permission Changes
Thousands of additional community college students have qualified for SNAP benefits and received greater benefits due to emergency permits that expire in the coming months.
The emergency grants, which provided an average benefit increase of $95 per month, ended in late February. Several federal states have already canceled the additional services. SNAP work requirements will return and the temporary student exemptions will end when the national emergency ends, meaning many community college students will need to increase their work hours, enroll in work study, a SNAP E&T program, or their eligibility lose .
Recognizing that these upcoming changes will be confusing and difficult to navigate for both students and colleges, the USDA released new guidance this week on how best to communicate the eligibility changes to students and identify students who remain are entitled to benefits.
The Farm Bill reauthorization process begins
Also this week, the US Senate Committee on Agriculture, Food and Forestry held another round of hearings to reauthorize the Farm Bill. The sprawling, multi-faceted bill was last reauthorized in 2018 and regulates key areas of interest for community colleges, including investments in farm labor, farm research, and most importantly, food assistance programs.
This week’s hearing focused on nutrition programs. Witnesses Stacy Dean, USDA Assistant Undersecretary for Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services, and USDA Administrator Cindy Long praised the importance of the SNAP program, the increased generosity of benefits under the revised Thrifty Food Plan and increased eligibility for individuals during Covid . They also noted their commitment to key components of the White House’s National Strategy on Hunger, Nutrition and Health, released last fall. This included allowing SNAP and WIC beneficiaries to buy healthy groceries online. This policy change could promote food security for community college students in rural communities and food deserts who may face greater time barriers to grocery shopping.
The question of extending SNAP eligibility to college students was not raised at the hearing. Many members raised concerns about the overall cost of the program, program fraud, and the number of dependent adults participating in the program. While some Republican committee members said that job requirements needed better enforcement and perhaps strengthening, Dean noted that current job requirements are not having the intended effect on reducing unemployment. Instead, she said she hopes for a reassessment of job requirements to better serve its intended purpose — helping individuals find employment opportunities that provide economic security and food security for their families, including through education, training and skills development.
AACC will continue to advocate for policies to permanently extend SNAP eligibility to college students to promote food security and college success.