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Oregon State University's Cascadia Market

Theresa Hogue | Oregon State University

A growing number of college students are enrolled in the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, but few students who receive SNAP benefits can purchase food on college campuses, where technological and bureaucratic hurdles prevent most institutions from participating in the aid program.

Earlier this month, Oregon State University and California's Humboldt State University became two rare institutions that can accept SNAP benefits. At Oregon State, the effort took nearly half a decade.

“We are really committed to helping those with financial insecurity and helping them be successful on campus,” said Tara Sanders, university housing and dining services nutritionist at Oregon State. “This has been a goal of that overall package for a long time, but it took several years to work through. It took a tremendous amount of coordination.”

Students who receive Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits can use them at Oregon State’s Cascadia Market, a grocery store located in the university’s International Living-Learning Center. Students may be eligible for SNAP if they fall below certain income levels and meet several requirements, including working at least 20 hours per week. Oregon State does not currently track how many students receive the benefits, but nearly 3,000 students used the university’s emergency food pantry and more than 2,000 students signed up for Oregon State’s supplemental meal plan for students with financial need last year.

“While we don’t have a good sense of SNAP participation yet, we know this is an issue, based on our food pantry numbers,” Sanders said.

In 2010, researchers at City University of New York estimated that 6.4 percent of CUNY students participated in SNAP, and three times as many were eligible to receive the benefits but did not apply. According to U.S. Census data from that same year, about 12 percent of college-aged students used SNAP benefits. Last year, a Wisconsin HOPE Lab study of 3,000 undergraduates receiving Pell Grants at public two- and four- year institutions found that 27 percent of students said they could not afford to buy food or ate less than they should because of costs.

A study released last month -- by the HOPE Lab, in collaboration with the Association of Community College Trustees, the nonprofit Single Stop and the annual web-based Healthy Minds Study -- found that more than half of students across 10 community colleges experienced some level of food insecurity. Nearly 40 percent of the 4,312 students in the study agreed with the statement “the food that I bought just didn’t last and I didn’t have money to get more” in the last 30 days.

A 2014 survey of students at Western Oregon University found that 59 percent of students there were food insecure at some point in the previous year. A 2007 study at the University of Hawaii found that 21 percent of students struggled to afford food, and an Arizona State University study found that 34 percent of its first-year students were food insecure. None of these institutions currently participate in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

In 2013, the California state Legislature considered a bill that would have required the state's public colleges and universities to accept SNAP, but the proposed legislation died the following year. Humboldt State University -- which will begin accepting SNAP benefits this semester after a nearly two-year effort -- is believed to be the only university in California that participates in the program.

“As more schools try to respond to student hunger by opening food pantries and helping students apply for SNAP benefits, some look into becoming eligible to accept SNAP benefits, but very few work through the entire process as OSU did,” Amy Ellen Duke-Benfield, senior policy analyst at the Center for Law and Social Policy, said. “It’s harder than one would think.”

When Oregon State first tried to participate in SNAP in 2010, it quickly hit a speed bump. The on-campus store the university had hoped to use did not meet federal requirements for the program. In fact, none of the stores on campus at the time qualified. The small convenience stores -- the kind common on many residential campuses -- did not offer the required variety of food, such as certain amounts of fresh fruit and dairy. As most prepared food does not qualify, SNAP benefits also cannot be used to purchase food in campus cafeterias.

In 2011 -- following the construction of housing for upperclassmen that included kitchen suites -- Oregon State opened a full grocery store on campus. That larger store met the criteria for SNAP, but the university’s payment system was not compatible with the state’s Oregon Trail cards, the method used for processing SNAP benefits. The next few years, Sanders said, were spent “working through internal technical hurdles,” which included coordinating with the university’s administrators and the state treasury.

The university was notified that it met federal SNAP requirements in August 2015. “Things lined up and we felt that we could finally do this,” Sanders said.

Clare Cady, director and co-founder of the College and University Food Bank Alliance, was director of Oregon State’s Human Services Resource Center during much of the campaign to bring SNAP to the university. Now senior program officer for national college programs at Single Stop, an anti-poverty nonprofit, Cady said meeting the requirements of SNAP remains an “incredibly challenging process” for colleges.

“There are two, maybe three, colleges in the country that offer this,” Cady said. “Nothing about SNAP is easy, especially for students. It should be easier for students to get it, keep it and use it. But this is also just one piece. If colleges want do to something and are thinking about helping students, they could create campus food pantries, offer free breakfast programs, help students sign up for SNAP. On the school side, there's a lot of other things you can do first without trying to make big infrastructure changes.”

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