Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
Watch Live

Racial Justice and Social Equity

Many California college students are leaving nearly $300 of monthly grocery help on the table

Researchers have studied how many people are eligible for CalFresh, California’s food stamps, but don’t apply. It’s called the “take-up rate.”

But they’ve never looked specifically at that data for college students — until now.

Jesse Rothstein, faculty director at the California Policy Lab, said CalFresh could make the difference between getting a degree and dropping out.


“If students are having trouble paying for groceries, that's a pretty strong reason to stop college and go get a job,” he said.

Financial aid often covers tuition, but not the cost of rent and food.

So Rothstein wanted to find the CalFresh take-up rate for California’s college students.

He cross-referenced college enrollment and financial aid application data with CalFresh enrollment and eligibility rules.

What he found surprised him — about 93,000 University of California and community college students received CalFresh in Fall 2019.


But about 235,000 were eligible and didn’t apply, missing out on up to almost $200 in monthly benefits — an amount that’s since risen to nearly $300 — that could have paid for their groceries.

“I don't think it occurs to them to apply,” Rothstein said. “And then if it does occur to them, it's not that easy to figure out how to navigate the process.”

He said the findings should compel the state’s Department of Social Services, which runs the CalFresh program, to simplify the application process, and to coordinate better with financial aid offices. He imagines financial aid offices proactively sending out letters to students who might be eligible.

“Students shouldn’t have to worry about whether or not they can afford their next meal,” said Genie Kim, UC’s Director of Student Mental Health. “These estimates show that we have a lot of work to do in order to improve access and connect more eligible students to CalFresh benefits.”

Larger colleges are increasingly creating offices to help students with basic needs like applying for CalFresh, but it’s less common at community colleges, Rothstein said.

During the semester he studied, 16% of all California community college students were likely eligible for CalFresh, 31% of UC undergraduates and 6% of UC graduate students.

He said the lower eligibility rate for community college students is mostly because more of these students live with their parents, which makes them less likely to qualify.

The take-up rate on San Diego campuses is slightly below the state average.

He plans to extend the research to the Cal State system next.