Most students enrolled half-time or more in college typically aren't eligible for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), sometimes known as food stamps. But temporary changes to the federal program are allowing some low-income students to take advantage during the pandemic.
Guidance released by the U.S. Department of Education in February states that students who are eligible for federal or state-funded work study at their institution and/or who have an expected family contribution of $0 in the current academic year can receive SNAP benefits if they meet the usual eligibility requirements.
"Since the onset of this pandemic, college students already living with low incomes have experienced significant life disruptions including increased food insecurity," Acting Assistant Secretary for Postsecondary Education Michelle Asha Cooper wrote in a statement . "No student should have to worry about where their next meal will come from while balancing their studies."
There's a persistent myth that all college students are wealthy and taken care of, according to Sarita Cargas, a professor of human rights in the University of New Mexico Honors College.
"That's totally an assumption, that college students are privileged, and that somehow, if you're going to college, you are coming from money," Cargas said.
The results of a 2020 study by UNM's Basic Needs Project found that more than 30% of UNM students are food insecure, and that the numbers are much higher for LGBTQ students and students of color.
Cargas said the causes are structural. The cost of higher education has been rising for decades as family wages have stagnated, and federal assistance including the Pell Grant has not kept up with the cost of tuition and fees.
"So things have changed. Low-income students have all these strikes against them, and many of them are actually taking a huge financial risk by going to college," she said. "And when they have to make a choice of what to pay for, between rent, a health bill, a tuition bill, books - food is one of the first things to go."
During the pandemic, Cargas said the situation has been particularly dire for low-income students, many of whom work in industries like retail and food service, which have been impacted by COVID-19.
Cargas said expanded SNAP eligibility could be an important part of the solution, though she said embarrassment could prevent many students from seeking government benefits. The UNM report found that students perceive a strong stigma attached to poverty and food insecurity on campus.
"We have to help students not feel so alone and embarrassed about these problems," she said. "How do we change the conversation and remind students that it's not your fault, it's not your family's fault?"
Expanded SNAP eligibility requirements will remain in place until 30 days after the national COVID-19 public health emergency is lifted, likely through the end of 2021 at least.
This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.