College Eateries Rolling out Plans to Accept CalFresh

Electronic benefit transfer cards, or EBTs, will be accepted on several CSU campuses. Photo: HSU/Flickr.

Homeless or disabled college students in eight California counties will soon be able to use their CalFresh electronic benefits transfer cards to buy food at campus food services.

CalFresh – California’s name for the program formerly known as food stamps – usually cannot be used to buy prepared foods, such as those sold in dining halls on college campuses.

Yet some counties make exceptions to this rule for the homeless, disabled or elderly, who may not be able to prepare their own meals.

Counties that make that exception will now offer CalFresh benefits for campus food services. They include Alameda, Los Angeles, Sacramento, San Diego, San Francisco, San Luis Obispo, Santa Clara and Santa Cruz.

“We are trying to make our campuses more agreeable and accessible to all Californians,” said Assembly member Shirley Weber, D-San Diego, who sponsored the bill.

The changes to CalFresh are just one way colleges are trying to help students who don’t get enough to eat. Food pantries are popping up on campuses and some college minimarts are accepting CalFresh electronic benefits transfer cards. There is also a push on campus to sign up more low-income students for CalFresh.

A study commissioned by the California State University Chancellor’s Office released in January 2016 found that 21 to 24 percent of CSU’s 460,200 students are “food insecure.” The term refers to students who can’t afford an adequate amount of healthy food and who may skip meals to make ends meet.

Jenny Breed, who does CalFresh outreach work for 11 CSU campuses from her base at the California State University, Chico Center for Health Communities, said it’s too bad that the new rules only apply to homeless or disabled students.

“It doesn’t really hit a lot of our students,” she said.

California State University, Chico student Anthony Hiseley, who is a CalFresh recipient, is in favor of any effort to make it easier for students to access CalFresh on campus. The 22-year-old health science major said it is a hassle to leave campus every time he wants to buy food so he can use his EBT card. He said he has very little cash to spend at student stores because most of his money goes to paying his bills so he can survive. He said that if his EBT card was accepted on campus, “100 percent, I would use it.”

Joy Pederson, associate dean of students at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo, said she is not sure how many students will be able to use CalFresh benefits on campus under the new rules. In the end, it may benefit mostly non-students, who are also allowed to eat at campus food services. “We may have more community members that fit the eligibility requirements than we have students,” she said.

The school has tried without success in the past to get EBT readers for the campus, Pederson added. The goal was for any CalFresh recipient to be able to use their cards, but cumbersome guidelines and regulations proved to be a stumbling block, she said.

In the meantime, private donations fund a food pantry and meals voucher program in which students can get a free meal at student services.

With the cost of attending a year at Cal Poly now at $26,000 (including tuition, housing and textbooks), more students face food insecurity. “As tuition goes up, it definitely impacts students’ abilities to afford basic needs,” Pederson said.

California State University, Sacramento hopes to get its restaurant meals program for CalFresh recipients up and running by the end of the spring semester or possibly summer, said Danielle Munoz, the university’s student affairs case manager, who works with CalFresh outreach. As of now, the closest place for students to use their EBT cards is a 7-11 near campus.

The campus does offer a food pantry with nonperishable items three days a week, as well as a pop-up pantry twice a month that offers fresh produce as well as recipes and cooking demonstrations. Reva Wittenberg, associate director of campus wellness at Sacramento State University, said the college is ramping up efforts to publicize CalFresh and make sure all eligible students are enrolled.

California State University, Long Beach finally started accepting EBT cards at one of its campus stores last fall after trying and failing to get approved once before, said Kierstin Stickney, director of marketing at the college’s Forty-Niner Shops. Since October, the shop has had 240 EBT transactions leading to about $1,500 in sales, which Stickney sees as a good start. “We’re really excited,” she said. “We want to get the word out, we want to let people know that they have this option on campus.”

Humboldt State University also accepts EBT cards in its campus store and was among one of the first college campuses in the nation to do so when the program started in February 2016.

Michael Uhlenkamp, a spokesperson for the chancellor’s office at San Francisco State University, said student hunger and homelessness are important issues for colleges to address because it will affect graduation rates. “If we have students that can’t get food or housing, it forces them to drop out of school,” he said. “We’re spending money to invest in students. We want to make sure there is a return on the investment.”

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