California can solve community college students’ food insecurity crisis. Here’s how.

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Too many California college students spend too much time figuring out where their next meal may come from, or how to pay for it. When students have proper access to food, they stay enrolled and do better in school – and California policymakers can make that happen.

The 2020 statewide survey of Covid-19 impacts, led by the Research and Planning Group for the California Community Colleges in partnership with The Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice, found that half of all students enrolled in California’s community colleges faced food insecurity. And it’s likely getting worse. Since the pandemic hit, The Hope Center found that three out of five students nationally struggle with food insecurity and the California Student Aid Commission found that 56% of California Community College students reported rising weekly food costs. Black, Latinx, American Indian and Alaska Native students experience food insecurity at consistently higher rates.

We have an opportunity to re-envision student services such as financial and other aid programs seeking to address students’ “basic needs” – but only if all those who care have the will to implement systemic, student-centered change.

A patchwork of programs

In partnership with the California Community College Chancellor’s Office, Education Commission of the States (ECS) found that there is not a lack of programs that can help alleviate food insecurity. They did, however, find that the current landscape is a confusing patchwork of more than 20 programs and initiatives spanning college, system, state and federal jurisdictions. Only half of these programs provide direct aid — arguably the most effective solution to food insecurity because it also helps improve financial stability and continuous enrollment.

Our students’ mental and physical well-being is at stake. To address food insecurity and address other basic needs, including mental health, policymakers need to modernize benefits programs and maximize direct aid to California’s community college students.

Further, the state should make existing public benefits programs like CalFresh and Rescuing Food for Hungry Californians easy to access for the state’s 1.8 million community college students. The Chancellor’s Office is working with the California Department of Social Services and is excited about greater partnership and data sharing across to simplify application and verification processes.

Streamlining assistance

Studies show that administrative burden, the time required to access benefits programs, prevents many eligible people with need from getting help and staying food secure. Burdening current or would be students with having to seek out programs and complete long applications to prove that they’re “poor enough” deters engagement, enrollment, and success.

While progress has been made, California should continue to simplify and expand its financial aid and basic needs programming.

AB 1746, legislation sponsored by Assembly member Jose Medina (D-Riverside), would help to address this crisis by streamlining the existing Cal Grant entitlement programs and allow more than 120,000 additional community college students to qualify.

More broadly, programs need to be reworked or created to be fast-acting for students who need cash quickly. Hunger, medical emergencies, and sick kids don’t wait for paperwork to be filed and approved.

As such, emergency aid must be offered more frequently. Making small grants available to students in a time of crisis can make the difference between students staying in college or dropping out. Earlier in the pandemic, the federal government provided colleges and universities funding for emergency aid to help students afford food and other basic needs. In an evaluation of emergency aid at Compton College, students who received $250 in one-time emergency aid were more than twice as likely to graduate, once they could pay for unexpected expenses.

More investments needed

As we know, inequitable funding leads to inequitable outcomes. If policymakers expect better outcomes for community college students, funding is necessary to help them achieve those outcomes.

California also needs to invest more in community colleges and their students. Last year, the state legislature allocated $30 million annually to support basic needs centers at the 116 California community colleges – approximately $250,000 per college. In comparison, the state allocated $15 million to the University of California system alone, averaging around $1.5 million per college.

College students aren’t just learning machines – they have lives to live. Many have kids to raise, work a full-time job, or live with a disability. Navigating food insecurity doesn’t have to be another burden for them.

Let’s enact policies that acknowledge their humanity and support their economic mobility. 

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Eloy Ortiz Oakley is chancellor of the California Community Colleges, the largest system of higher education in the nation, and a regent of the University of California.

Angelica Campos is president of the Student Senate for California Community Colleges.