State Legislature Approves Measure to Expand CalFresh Food Benefits for Thousands of California Students

Measure Would Leverage Federal Resources to Address Growing Student Hunger Crisis at California Colleges and Universities

For immediate release:

SACRAMENTO, CA — Yesterday, the state legislature passed Assembly Bill (AB) 396, which will expand access to crucial food and nutrition resources for thousands of California students. The measure, authored by Assemblymember Jesse Gabriel (D - Woodland Hills), aims to assist students struggling with hunger and food insecurity by requiring qualifying programs at public colleges and universities to seek approval from the California Department of Social Services (CDSS) to provide eligible students with CalFresh food benefits.

“It’s shameful that so many students in California go to bed hungry at night,” said Assemblymember Gabriel. “Particularly with the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbating our student hunger crisis, it’s imperative that we leverage all available resources. AB 396 will allow us to take advantage of already existing federal dollars to help feed our most vulnerable students and make sure they get the nutrition assistance they so desperately need.”

“Assembly Bill 396 will streamline the process by which the CSU certifies its academic programs to participate in the ‘employment and training’ student eligibility pathway for CalFresh benefits,” said CSU Chancellor Joseph I. Castro. “In doing so, it will help ensure that Cal State students are connected to much-needed CalFresh benefits—removing a barrier to success so that they can achieve their personal, academic, and career goals, as well as help California meet its future workforce needs.”

Research demonstrates a shockingly high prevalence of food insecurity and hunger on California’s college campuses. Nearly one in three California college students face food and housing insecurity, according to a survey by the California Student Aid Commission. According to California State University (CSU), one in five CSU students experience hunger. In a survey recently conducted by the University of California Regents, it was found that one in five University of California (UC) students do not have access to adequate food or nutrition.

The COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated these economic and basic needs issues for students. A recent report shows that almost 3 out of every 5 students said they were experiencing basic needs insecurity during the pandemic. The report also highlights the heightened basic needs insecurity threatening retention for students of color: 74% of Indigenous and 71% of Black students responding to the survey reported facing basic needs insecurity.

The federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) denies CalFresh eligibility to all college students unless they are working at least 20 hours a week or are eligible for one of the exemptions outlined in CalFresh policy. One such of these student exemptions is the Employment and Training (E&T) services program exemption—students can qualify under this exemption if they participate in a campus-based program that has components equivalent to the nationwide SNAP E&T program. Examples of qualifying programs for the E&T student exemption include internships, apprenticeships, on-the-job training, continuous workshops or semester-long seminars that teach interviewing skills and resume writing, and certain graduate school programs.

According to data from CDSS, a little over 170 programs are currently approved. Yet, according to data from the U.S. Department of Education, there are over 9,000 potentially qualifying programs hosted by the California Community Colleges (CCCs) alone.

"Students should have the freedom to be a student and focus on their education without the added stress of meeting their basic needs, yet the unfortunate reality is that food insecurity continues to impact too many college students in California,” said ​​Yun (Raina) Zhao, University of California Student Association (UCSA) Campaigns Chair and UC Berkeley student. “Existing student employment criteria for CalFresh eligibility are difficult to meet, presenting excessive stressors to a student's already demanding situation. AB 396 is a necessary step to make it easier for students to meet CalFresh requirements and receive the resources they need, not only to be academically successful but also to have an adequate standard of living."

AB 396 now heads to the Governor’s desk, where it must be signed or vetoed by October 10.