GAO Report on Food Insecurity on Campus Identifies Faults With SNAP Benefits

By Joelle Fredman, NASFAA Staff Reporter

Millions of college students who are eligible for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)—formerly known as the food stamp program—are not receiving benefits due to a lack of guidance and information from the Food and Nutrition Service (FNS), an agency serving under the Department of Agriculture, according to the Government Accountability Office’s (GAO) first report on food insecurity among postsecondary students.

In the report—performed at the request of Sens. Patty Murray (D-WA), the ranking member of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) committee, Ed Markey (D-MA), the ranking member of the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee, Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), and Debbie Stabenow (D-MI)—GAO analyzed 31 studies conducted about food insecurity among college students, interviewed college officials and students at 14 schools in California, Kentucky, Massachusetts, and Michigan, and used data from the 2015-16 National Postsecondary Student Aid Study (NPSAS).

GAO wrote in its findings that none of those existing reports were able to show an accurate, national picture of how many students are suffering from food insecurity in college, and what is being done to assist them. Specifically, GAO reported that while 29 of the 31 studies surveyed students on hundreds of college campuses, those studies produced a wide range of results, from finding that 9 percent of students suffered from food insecurity to finding that more than 50 percent did. The remaining two studies, GAO wrote, used household income data to determine the state of food insecurity on campus, which may not speak to what is truly occuring at college when students no longer live at home.

In its own reporting, GAO found that there are certain risk factors that are associated with food insecurity, including having a low-income, being a first-generation college student, a single parent, disabled, homeless or a former foster youth. According to GAO’s study, 29 percent (5.5 million students) of all undergraduates are low-income, and have at least one other risk factor for food insecurity. Among those students, more than half had at least two or more of those risk factors.

GAO also found that SNAP—the largest federal program to assist food insecurity in the United States—was not reaching many of these students. Using 2016 NPSAS data, GAO found that of those 5.5 million students who were low-income and had one risk factor, 3.3 million would have likely qualified for SNAP via an exemption. While college students enrolled at least half-time are generally not eligible for SNAP due to work requirements, there are exemptions in place to help them circumvent restrictions and qualify for assistance, such as if they are participating in a state or federal work-study program, are a parent with a child under 6 years old, a single parent enrolled full time with a child under 12, or a parent with a child aged 6 to 11 who cannot afford childcare or find work. Despite this, GAO found that roughly 1.8 million of those 3.3 million students reported not receiving SNAP benefits.

While GAO did report seeing progress in state agencies trying to help inform students of SNAP through efforts such as partnering with colleges, students at a majority of the colleges GAO interviewed said they either didn’t know about the program or found it “difficult to understand the SNAP student rules.”

GAO wrote that college officials also said they wanted more information from the FNS about student eligibility guidelines, but that such targeted information was not easily available. GAO wrote that it was told by a FNS top official that such information can also be found on the FNS website—however GAO reported that it was “not easy to find.” For example, while the main page of the FNS website for SNAP lists special circumstances for certain populations, it does not include college students, nor does it link to the page for students. Additionally, GAO noted that the page for students was littered with technical jargon.

In addition, GAO found that there was a lack of information among state SNAP agencies about how they could help students figure out if they qualified for SNAP based on an exemption. GAO quoted one agent in the report who said that the lack of guidance from FNS “leaves many state SNAP agencies operating with uncertainty, and, as a result, many of them do not take any actions to identify those college students who may qualify for an employment and training exemption under SNAP rules.”       

GAO wrote that in order to help students who are eligible for SNAP receive that assistance, FNS should make the information about student exemptions more accessible on its website, and it should connect with regional offices to find out how they are assisting eligible SNAP students and share this information with state agencies.    

This report comes out as the Trump administration is seeking to limit SNAP by restricting states’ ability to issue waivers to beneficiaries who are not meeting work requirements, which would affect those who are in between jobs. While restrictions to the program were rejected by lawmakers in the farm bill that the president signed in December, the administration soon after issued a proposal to work outside of Congress through executive action to make its desired changes to SNAP.


Publication Date: 1/14/2019

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