On assuming office, President Biden’s primary task was to minimize the spread of Covid-19 and oversee an effective vaccination rollout to, one day, end the pandemic. While Covid-19 continues infecting people in record numbers, the vaccination drive promises to curb the virus's spread. The "normal” days, as we have repeatedly reminisced over this past year, seem to be within grasp, at least in the United States. But what kind of "normal" are we reverting to? And more importantly, is the “normality” of February 2020 something to look forward to – or even rejoice over?
In February 2020 – and today – "normality" was, and is, that one in three college students faced food insecurity on college campuses in the United States. While 30 million K-12 students benefit from the Natural School Lunch Program, it is a painfully different matter when they leave for college.
In February 2020 – and today – "normality" was, and is, that one in three college students faced food insecurity on college campuses in the United States.
Many students who graduate high school and start college find themselves ineligible for federal food programs because they are not covered by the existing social safety net. Eligible student beneficiaries face difficulties, too. Some students don’t receive adequate information about federal programs. Other students may not know of programs altogether, and as a result, cannot reap the benefits. Additionally, for college students successfully enrolled in federal programs, navigating the social stigma of receiving federal help is emotionally challenging and draining. Additionally, some continue to hold a perception that those who enroll in federally assisted programs are lazy. This causes some students who need federal support to voluntarily refuse benefits for fear of social stigmatization in a new environment. Welcome to college.
Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)
The nation’s leading anti-hunger program for adults, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, provides food assistance to almost 44 million Americans. Only an estimated 18% of food-insecure college students have been eligible for the program in recent years, with 3% actually receiving food assistance from the government.
President Biden made two major campaign promises that relate to ending campus food insecurity. First, he promised to temporarily increase SNAP benefits by 15% during the pandemic. Second, he promised to temporarily provide low-income families with about $100 per month in extra nutritional support. President Biden fulfilled both of these promises during his $1.9 trillion Covid-19 stimulus bill. This is a welcome development but must be bolstered and expanded going forward – that is, if President Biden is sincere about ending food insecurity on college campuses entirely.
The Relief Bill increased SNAP coverage by 15%, qualified students qualifying for federal or state work-study, as well as students with an Expected Family Contribution (EFC) of $0. After the expansion, a student enrolled as a one-person household now receives $235 per month to supplement their grocery budget. These measures provide immediate relief to three million students undergoing the epidemic of student hunger. With these changes, President Biden has potentially slashed college food insecurity by half -- undoubtedly a laudable achievement. However, challenges remain to see this feat come to fruition.
First, “temporary” measures to combat food insecurity miss the larger point. Food insecurity on campus will continue to plague students, long after the plague defining our time withers away. The USDA website, the first window to enroll for new beneficiaries, makes this remedy's temporary nature clear on their website. The word "temporary” is one of only two words on the entire website that is bolded, reminding beneficiaries to not expect support once the pandemic is over. They also note that student exemptions may be in effect only until 30 days after the Covid-19 public health emergency ends, potentially pushing three million students into food insecurity once again.
Conceptualizing college food insecurity remedies as "temporary" stop-gap measures during the pandemic not only showcases a lack of will to pursue permanent solutions but also highlights a willful neglect about the severity of the crisis. The messaging suggests that food insecurity is a byproduct of the pandemic when in reality, the pandemic simply exposed the already-existing systemic fault lines. Cementing the positive steps taken to mitigate college food insecurity must be cemented permanently with institutional and legislative backing.
Second, this money will never reach newly eligible students if they do not know about it. Many students do not understand the SNAP eligibility system, and research shows that clear information and assistance play critical roles in SNAP benefit uptake. The government can take many measures to increase uptake: mail documentation to all $0 EFC students, communicate to students the size of their benefit through FAFSA, categorically exempt students from having to reapply and requalify, and allow states to interpret work-study exemptions in the broadest sense.
Student leaders in service-based organizations should partner with the school’s relevant authorities to share information and resources about this SNAP expansion to reach the wider possible audience. Students currently may not know that they are eligible, and unless a coordinated approach between administrations and student bodies is carried out, that may not change. However, informing people of rule changes and providing resources is one thing. Ensuring that SNAP beneficiaries are comfortable in taking advantage of their benefits on campus is another. Both the administration and student body must work to de-stigmatize campus so beneficiaries thrive on campus.
Overcoming Social Stigma on Campus
While policy legislation is difficult to enact, especially in today’s split Congress, human history has shown that overcoming social stigma is more arduous. The stigma that benefits are underserved because they lead to reliance on tax dollars has been used to equate benefits with laziness. The United States along with others have long lauded the principle of “pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps” to highlight an ostensibly superior work ethic and productivity. The problem with equating benefits with laziness is that it has been proven to be largely untrue through empirical research and analysis.
For decades, many economists have argued that this dichotomy is simply wrong – that welfare programs like SNAP are not as much an expenditure item but common-sense investments in the health and future success of children of low-income backgrounds. And now, across the world, a fleet of studies are converging on the consensus that even radical welfare programs don’t fuel laziness and make people less productive. A 2015 meta-study (Harvard/MIT) of cash programs in middle/low countries found "no systematic evidence that cash transfer programs discourage work" in seven different countries: Mexico, Nicaragua, Honduras, the Philippines, Indonesia, or Morocco. The authors said that these findings are expandable to other countries in future research.
As we know, recalibrating the facts is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition to overcoming social stigmas. Overcoming social stigmas require long, inter-generational efforts across multiple sectors of society. For example, today, the mental health stigma is weaker than it was in my parents’ generation. This has been the result of a widespread education campaign about mental health, an understanding of symptoms that come with mental illnesses, sharing stories of overcoming mental illnesses, and the rightful acceptance that mental health should be taken as seriously as physical health. Needless to say, this took time. And there is still a long way to go before we can truly end the mental health stigma. But that does not diminish the large strides this entire process of de-stigmatization has achieved.
Generally speaking, children grow up today in a less stigmatized environment surrounding discussion around mental health. However, the same cannot be said about attitudes surrounding welfare beneficiaries in federal food programs. Students relying on benefits and federal support face multi-dimensional challenges on campus that may make them feel ostracized and excluded.
The pervasiveness of food insecurity in America – much like poverty in America – is not discussed with children in school. That is why there is a tendency to see poverty and food insecurity as a foreign phenomenon, affecting people who look a little different, people who live their lives in lands whose names many Americans cannot even pronounce, all the while reducing the United States as a “do-gooder” that provides “life-saving” aid to countries that need it. As many political scientists have pointed out, this attitude is not a cause, but a symptom, of American exceptionalism, which has become deeply ingrained in the institutions (like schools and colleges) that run the country. American exceptionalism will not change the fact that 1 in 3 college students are food insecure.
American exceptionalism will not change the fact that 1 in 3 college students are food insecure.
Perhaps if children were told that it is statistically likely that 1 in 3 students they will meet over the next two or four years may be food insecure at some point in college – some of whom may be your class-fellows and friends – they might push their administrations to play their part in striving for a destigmatized campus. Colleges need to take several steps to help de-stigmatize campus.
First, SNAP beneficiaries on campus should possess no overt indication that they are enrolled in the program. In other words, the school should ensure that SNAP beneficiaries’ identities are concealed so that they do not “stick out” and feel socially ostracized. This has become an expectation in most spheres of society – wristbands and special forms of identification for SNAP beneficiaries have been largely disbanded as a personal identifier – however, top-down legislative action to outlaw non-concealable identifiers on campuses would help ensure permanence and legal backing.
Second, SNAP beneficiaries should not experience disruptions in their social interaction on campuses with the wider community, and vice versa. Schools can partner their cafeterias, dining halls, and meal plans with the federal government to accept SNAP benefits (like grocery stores do). Schools should take steps to ensure SNAP beneficiaries are not excluded from eating meals with friends in dining centers and cafeterias because they receive meals from another locality.
Food insecurity is a structural problem that no non-government organization, including Million Meals Mission, can alleviate without the help of policymakers in government. Million Meals Mission is looking to partner with any interested schools and community centers to create dynamic, tailor-made programs that could spark engagement with food insecurity at an early age. We aspire for this initiative to start the broader process of transforming attitudes and bolstering education on food insecurity in K-12 schools. We hope you will consider supporting us any way you can as we strive to play our part in alleviating food insecurity in the international communities we work in.
Million Meals Mission raises awareness about food insecurity and provides meals to food insecure communities around the world.
By supporting us, you can help us provide nutritious meals to countless people in need!