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College Students: Your CalFresh Eligibility Is About to Change. Here's What to Do

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A person with medium-toned skin sits at a wooden table writing on a notepad, surrounded by books. They are wearing a gray t-shirt and have tattooed forearms. We can't see their face.
If you're a student, your CalFresh eligibility is about to change. (cottonbro studio/Pexels)

During the pandemic, more California students have been able to use CalFresh food benefits, the state’s version of the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) also known as “food stamps.”

Now, that federal program, which widened the eligibility for college students needing food assistance during the pandemic — and also raised those benefits for many — is coming to an end. But you still have time to sign up to secure another year of food benefits — and student advocates and financial aid experts say now is the time to do so.

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“People often don’t know that they are eligible, and if they do know they are eligible, they might not apply because the application is intimidating or they put it off. But it takes 15 minutes, and it is worth the effort,” said Ginnie Tran, CalFresh outreach coordinator for Cal State University, East Bay. “I used it personally when I was in college and was able to help myself and my roommates get groceries.”

During the pandemic, CalFresh provided all eligible students with $281 a month for food and groceries, Tran said. That changes on June 10 (PDF), after which applications will fall under the pre-pandemic regulations, which provide between $25 and $281, depending on income and other individual factors. Not only is the amount offered to students going to fall, but who’s eligible for CalFresh as a student is also changing. Jump to: How do I know if I qualify for CalFresh now? 

Over 3 million households across the state rely on CalFresh. That includes more than 127,000 students across the California State University system.

But many students who are eligible for CalFresh aren’t receiving the support they are entitled to. Somewhere between 416,000 and 700,000 California college students qualified for CalFresh benefits under the permanent rules during the 2018–19 school year (PDF), according to a June 2020 state report. But only 127,360 students applied and received assistance the same year, the report shows.

Just 10% of community college students, 12% of UC undergraduate students and 4% of UC graduate students were enrolled in CalFresh through the 2019–2020 academic year, according to data from the California Policy Lab.

Here’s what you need to know about upcoming changes to student CalFresh benefits, and what to do if you’re a student who’s affected.

Why are CalFresh benefits changing?

The federal government is ending a pandemic-era food assistance program where SNAP expanded benefits to include students who are eligible for federal or state work study — a federal program that provides jobs for students with financial need — or whose families cannot afford to contribute any money to their tuition. These were called temporary student exemptions.

The change is tied to the end of the national public health emergency order for COVID-19 on May 11, causing numerous state and federal pandemic relief programs to wind down.

The temporary student exemptions expire on June 10, so the last day that students can apply for CalFresh and still receive the pandemic-era benefits is June 9, 2023. Starting June 10, any students applying will be subject to the new eligibility rules (more on this below).

“A significant number of students will be affected” by the upcoming eligibility shift, Tran said.

I’m a student on CalFresh right now. How do I know if I still qualify?

Beginning July 2023, only students who meet what’s known as a “permanent exemption” (PDF) will continue to qualify for CalFresh when they go through the recertification process. That includes students with physical or mental disabilities that affect their ability to work, some students with children, working students and students who are not expecting to enroll in their next term. See the California Department of Social Services list of permanent student exemptions for CalFresh (PDF).

This means that starting in July, many of those students who qualified for CalFresh during the pandemic under one of the temporary student exemptions will no longer qualify when they recertify. According to the California Department of Social Services (CDSS), the state body that administers CalFresh, if you were approved for CalFresh under one of the temporary student exemptions, you don’t need to do anything to keep your benefits until your next recertification. But to keep those benefits, you’ll have to meet one of the permanent student exemptions (PDF).

About 2 in 5 college students are still eligible for CalFresh under the new rules starting in July, “but awareness is a lot lower than that,” said Tran. “I would encourage everyone to apply. You don’t get penalized if you apply and aren’t approved.”

If you aren’t sure, contact your school’s CalFresh coordinator or county human services agency.

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I’m a student and I think I qualify. How do I apply for CalFresh?

There are several avenues students can take to apply. Eligible students must typically recertify for CalFresh every year.

The easiest way for most students is to fill out an application for CalFresh at getcalfresh.org.

The majority of California counties also have adopted a new website called BenefitsCal.com. In the Bay Area, counties not using this site yet are Alameda, San Francisco, San Mateo, Solano and Sonoma, so students within those areas will be prompted through BenefitsCal.com to visit their county’s own website and will be provided with that link. All California counties are expected to host applications through the website by November 2023.

In an effort to increase student participation in CalFresh, county social services agencies are increasingly working with campuses to reach out directly to students who might be eligible.

In 2021, California lawmakers passed AB 1326, which requires county human services agencies to have college campus liaisons like Tran who provide one-on-one support with students to fill out their CalFresh applications in person or online.

I missed the CalFresh deadline for college students. What now?

If you missed the CalFresh deadline for students, you may still have options.

Many California counties offer a 24/7 hotline for social programs such as CalFresh. And you can call 211 to speak with someone about immediate food assistance programs in your area.

The California Department of Social Services help line at (888) 445-1955 also offers guidance on food assistance options and programs.

See more local resources and options for finding food assistance from KQED’s CalFresh guide, from how to find a food bank to how to get 50% off produce at local farmers markets.

Tell us: What else do you need information about?

At KQED News, we know that it can sometimes be hard to track down the answers to navigate life in the Bay Area in 2023. We’ve published clear, practical explainers and guides about COVID, how to cope with intense winter weather and how to exercise your right to protest safely.

So tell us: What do you need to know more about? Tell us, and you could see your question answered online or on social media. What you submit will make our reporting stronger, and help us decide what to cover here on our site, and on KQED Public Radio, too.

KQED’s Carly Severn contributed to this story.

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