Giving up food to feed a child. Choosing a MetroCard over a meal. These are some of the stories that researchers have collected on student food insecurity at the City University of New York (CUNY). In 2018, approximately 34,000 CUNY students were often or sometimes hungry. Disproportionately, Black and Hispanic, low-income, and community college students were at high risk of being food-insecure.
Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, food insecurity among CUNY students has increased. A year ago, researchers at Healthy CUNY surveyed CUNY students on their experiences navigating social, economic, and health needs at the peak of the pandemic. Compared to 16% of students in 2018, almost 50% of students reported that they worried they would run out of food in 2020, — a percentage triple of what it was in 2018. At Healthy CUNY, I worked with graduate students over the summer to code and comb through hundreds of those responses on students’ food access. Our analysis showed us how students had experienced increased food insecurity, struggling with crowded supermarkets, long lines, and loss of income.
Student food insecurity at CUNY can be attributed to many factors. CUNY students, largely students of color and working class, are more vulnerable to the “new economics of college.” Overlapping crises have made higher education unaffordable and hardships more pronounced: colleges suffer from divestment; tuition has increased; financial aid remains insufficient; and jobs pay meagerly. Furthermore, stringent SNAP regulations around eligibility prevent students from accessing a support that puts more money into their pockets for food. Even CUNY students eligible for SNAP face additional barriers such as stigma and administrative burden.
With CUNY students facing exacerbated need, we must pursue policy solutions to address student food insecurity. In the short term, New York State can begin by passing the Campus Hunger Act. Passed in three states, the Campus Hunger Act provides qualifying public campuses state funding for anti-hunger efforts. California, the earliest adopter, demonstrates the value of the legislation’s flexibility, which has enabled universities to address student food insecurity in many ways. California’s colleges and universities have strengthened communication outreach, expanded SNAP outreach and enrollment, and developed creative partnerships to promote food access.
Passing the NYS legislation will enable universities to strengthen existing food support infrastructure while sustaining successful, student-driven programs. We can, for example, build on the success of initiatives such as Swipe Out Hunger Student Food Navigators, who currently raise awareness about SNAP to students, seek to dispel stigma, and help assist their peers with enrollment assistance. Since January, CUNY student navigators have led comprehensive and personalized outreach efforts across CUNY campuses to help over 560 students enroll in SNAP.
However, we must also remedy policy failures that have historically barred college students from accessing more sustainable supports such as SNAP. In November 2020, New York’s expansion of SNAP eligibility to include students from technical college programs, an estimated 75,000 students, was a helpful first step. So was the USDA’s recent expansion of eligibility to include full-time students eligible to participate in work-study programs and those with an estimated family contribution of zero, an estimated 3 million students.
But the latter reform, a response to economic fall-out from the pandemic, is temporary and set to expire 30 days after the public health emergency has lifted. Given that the prevalence of need has existed among CUNY students predating the pandemic, we ought to make this expansion permanent to allow more students to reap the multi-level benefits of SNAP. Critically, the expansion presents an opportunity to reimagine notions of deservingness, particularly among college students.
Some question the value of addressing student food insecurity. They argue that our focus should be on addressing food insecurity at a city instead of a campus level. But so much can be gained by investing in the success of CUNY students. The linkage of health, education, and hunger is clear: food security is associated with better grades and improved health outcomes. Leaving the issue unaddressed may impede college success, robbing students of the benefits of a degree which has become increasingly important in a bifurcated economy that rewards the college-educated with higher wages.
Food insecurity has heightened since the pandemic, and too many students at CUNY still remain food insecure. By adopting legislation such as the Campus Hunger Bill and SNAP eligibility expansion to ameliorate student hunger, we can help secure the future of the 274,000 students at the largest urban university system in the United States.
Christina Valeros is a senior and Macaulay Honors scholar at Hunter College pursuing a major in Human Biology and certificate in Public Policy. Christina’s interests center on the intersection of health, hunger, and education. After graduation, she plans to work in the public sector, ideally in youth civic engagement and policy advocacy, and then pursue graduate studies in public health and policy.