Before February, Alexis Smith hadn’t bought groceries in a month.
“I’ve just been living off oatmeal,” said Smith, a senior environmental studies major.
Now she’s able to afford food with food stamps and doesn’t have to take out loans for it, she said.
Under the new Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefit expansion, students eligible for work study programs and students with an expected family contribution of $0 on their federal student aid determination are eligible to receive benefits, according to a press release from the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services.
Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration announced plans to temporarily expand SNAP benefits for college-aged students on Feb. 8, after the federal Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021 passed by Congress in December 2020. The Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021 also increased the benefit amount by 15 percent through June 30, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services.
SNAP is a benefit program available for people experiencing financial hardship to help purchase food by providing an Electronic Benefits Transfer card, which acts as a debit card in most grocery stores, including the Fresh Grocer, 7-Eleven and CVS Pharmacy, according to the United States Benefit website.
Previously, students working 20 hours per week with young children, students with work study eligibility, students with disabilities, part-time students and students younger than 18 and older than 50 were eligible for SNAP benefits, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The extension will end 30 days after the government lifts the COVID-19 public health emergency, according to the U.S. Department of Education.
The expansion allows students unable to work through a work study program to pay for food during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to Community Legal Services Philadelphia, an organization providing free legal assistance to Philadelphians experiencing economic hardship.
“What we’re trying to do is get the word out when expected family contribution of zero or students who are eligible for work study should be applying for SNAP and take this opportunity because there has been a major problem of hunger among college students,” said Louise Hayes, a supervising attorney at Community Legal Services Philadelphia.
Single people will receive a maximum of $234 each month toward food, according to the Community Legal Services Pennsylvania.
Smith worked at Lowe’s and had a paid internship at the Philadelphia Parks Alliance in Summer 2020, but has been without income since she moved into her off-campus apartment for the fall semester in August 2020.
After paying tuition and rent, she did not have any money left over, but the program helped her pay for groceries, she said.
“It was kind of a miracle,” Smith said. “I was approved the same day I applied and it was super easy.”
Students can apply online without the previous interview process, but Hayes suggests students add their eligibility into the comment box when applying, she said.
“You don’t have to submit proof that your expected family contribution is zero, unless they have some reason to question that statement of yours,” Hayes said.
Smith said she paid her rent with aid from Temple University’s Student Emergency Aid Fund, created by the Division of Student Affairs and the Office of Institutional Advancement to provide assistance to students facing unforeseen circumstances.
Smith’s in a better financial position now, but feels the government should provide more financial assistance to other students who are struggling like her, she said.
“Pretty much every college student I know is in debt,” Smith said. “I shouldn’t have to take out a private loan just to live and pay my rent and pay for food.”
While the decision was not made by Pennsylvania alone, it’s important to expand benefits to students, wrote Ali Fogarty, communications director for the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services, in an email to The Temple News.
“No one should have to skip meals or go hungry in order to invest in their future as we do when we pursue higher education,” Fogarty wrote. “We are hopeful that this will be another resource that we can extend to people in need, and we are grateful to the federal government for this opportunity.”
Temple received a $44.2 million grant through federal stimulus funding for colleges and universities. Nearly $15 million will likely be distributed among students, with those who receive Pell Grants automatically receiving financial aid, The Temple News reported.
Paula Umaña, director of institutional transformation at the Hope Center for College, Community and Justice, is happy with expanded eligibility, but feels assistance should have come sooner during the pandemic, she said.
In a survey from April 20, 2020, to May 15, 2020, of more than 38,000 college students, three in five reported experiencing basic needs insecurity due to the financial hardships imposed by COVID-19, according to Hope Center.
Not enough students are aware of SNAP, and Umaña believes the government and universities should launch campaigns to register students who qualify. She also believes the negative stigma associated with food stamps hinders students from registering, she said.
“We need to change the narrative,” Umaña added. “The shame and bias applied to public benefits is heavy to where people might need it but feel that they shouldn’t be applying.”