Too many college students in California are hungry. For so many of them, “giving it the old college try” can mean going without food for long stretches and experiencing severe physical pain and mental anguish. This limits students’ ability to go to class, study hard, and take full advantage of their time at school to prepare them for the workforce. Why is this happening? Since the start of the Great Recession, California’s 4-year and 2-year higher education tuition costs have risen by 56 and 108 percent respectively. At the same time, young workers’ wages have declined by 20 percent nationwide. The era when students could work a part-time job to pay for tuition, housing, and basic needs like food is long gone.
The growing problem of hunger on California’s college campuses is an invisible experience for many students, but we are getting a better sense of its prevalence. Between 2015 and 2016, researchers at the Wisconsin HOPE Lab, an organization aimed at improving equity in higher education, surveyed 18 California community colleges and found that 68 percent of those students were food insecure — or lack reliable access to sufficient, affordable, and nutritious food — and 34 percent had the very lowest levels of food security, associated with hunger. Students at our four-year colleges and universities are struggling as well. According to a pair of 2015 studies, a quarter of CSU students and 42 percent of UC students do not have adequate access to food or experience hunger.
Hunger can stop smart, hard-working students in their tracks. Young Invincibles, a national Millennial research and advocacy organization, hears regularly from students struggling with food insecurity. Some, like Emily at the University of California, Berkeley struggle to not only juggle a full course load, but also conduct research and work two jobs to make ends meet. Emily knows that without the help of CalFresh her financial and academic security would be in jeopardy. Others experience hunger more severely, like Kathleen who was forced to leave school due to malnutrition, a consequence of persistent food insecurity during her freshman year at UC Santa Barbara in 1998. She’s devastated to see that this continues to be a problem for California’s students 20 years later.
The severity of the issue is gaining attention, and many institutions’ students and administrators are setting up on-campus food pantries, including twelve CSU campuses, six UC campuses, and a growing number of community colleges, according to the College and University Food Bank Alliance membership list. The CSU and UC systems have both recently committed additional resources to explore and develop new programs to alleviate hunger.
The state legislature is working to meet these efforts with policy support. Assemblywoman Weber has worked to debunk the myth that starving as a student should be seen as a character-building exercise and eliminate the very real challenges that food insecurity poses for California students. Her bill, AB 214, which is now with Governor Brown, and has passed in both the state House and Senate with overwhelming support, would remove many bureaucratic barriers that low-income students face in qualifying for the state’s federally-funded anti-hunger program, CalFresh, by clarifying policies and streamlining student access to the program. AB 214 is aimed at facilitating student access to programs that would alleviate hunger, recognizing that food insecurity contributes to poor health and keeps young people from achieving their educational goals
To address student hunger in California, give students of all backgrounds and equal chance at achieving a degree without the barriers posed by hunger and food insecurity, and be a leader on this issue nationally, Governor Brown must sign AB 214. For students who are eager to learn new skills and get on the path to a career in California, this bill is an important step forward to ensure they aren’t held back by the fear of where they’ll find their next meal.
Authored by Christopher Nellum, Policy and Research Director.