Soapbox

College students can’t succeed if they’re hungry

A woman buys a bag of cherries with CalFresh coupons at a farmers’ market in Sacramento in May.
A woman buys a bag of cherries with CalFresh coupons at a farmers’ market in Sacramento in May. rbenton@sacbee.com

What if you had to choose between buying a book for class or food? What if you had to sit through class, unable to pay attention because your stomach is grumbling and because you don’t know when you’re going to get your next meal?

 
Opinion

That was my reality when I was a student at UC Berkeley. As a low-income, first-generation Latina student, I had to navigate campus life while figuring out where my next meal was coming from. Every day, I hustled to find food, asking friends to swipe me into the dining hall and going to campus events with free food.

After graduation in 2012, I worked as a district representative for state Sen. Ellen Corbett, then as a case manager at Alameda County Department of Social Services. I began to realize that there are systemic problems with delivering important government services, including food assistance, and that many public officials lacked the tools to reach the most needy.

Today, hunger is still a reality for many college students. In a recent report by the National Student Campaign Against Hunger & Homelessness, about 22 percent said they go hungry and more than half said they missed a class or didn’t buy a required book to save money for food. Students shouldn’t have to choose between their education and their health. Access to food is a basic human right, and the UC system is working to address it.

But we’re collectively failing even as 1 in 10 UC students are eligible for CalFresh, known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program nationally. It’s difficult to ensure every campus is doing what is necessary to identify those who are hungry and supply them with food.

UC President Janet Napolitano and state officials have made this issue a priority, but we need to make sure these efforts actually reach students.

Not every student who is eligible is aware they can receive federal food assistance. Assembly Bill 214, signed into law in July, simplifies how students apply and requires the California Student Aid Commission to notify students of their eligibility.

Also, the state Department of Social Services recently announced a partnership with Code for America to launch a mobile application, GetCalFresh, to help students apply. Students can submit documents using their phone camera, rather than hunting down a scanner or fax machine. On average, it takes people eight minutes to check their eligibility and submit an application through GetCalFresh, compared to 45 minutes.

UC campuses are continuing to implement their own strategies, including student food pantries and text messages to notify students when leftover food is available from campus-catered events.

By prioritizing the health and education of all Californian students, we can help end hunger on college campuses.

Monica Beas of Oakland is a partnerships specialist at Code for America. She can be contacted at mbeas@codeforamerica.org.

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