Education

Wyden, Bonamici introduce bill to increase student food security

By Meerah Powell (OPB)
Sept. 26, 2023 11:10 p.m.

The legislation aims to remove barriers students might face in accessing SNAP and other benefits.

About 60% of college students who are eligible for food assistance benefits don’t receive them, according to a federal study.

Federal lawmakers, including Oregon’s Sen. Ron Wyden and Rep. Suzanne Bonamici, introduced legislation Tuesday in hopes of decreasing that percentage. A key staff person at one of Oregon’s largest public universities — the benefits navigator at Portland State — said the bill is a step in the right direction, though there’s more work to be done. Food assistance at PSU has been an ongoing conversation, with a frequently-used student food pantry and surveys showing the prevalence of food insecurity among students and staff.

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The Portland State University campus pictured in July of 2021. Food assistance at PSU has been an ongoing conversation.

The Portland State University campus pictured in July of 2021. Food assistance at PSU has been an ongoing conversation.

Hanin Najjar / OPB

If passed, the “Opportunity to Address College Hunger Act” would require colleges to inform students participating in work-study programs of their eligibility for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. Colleges would be required to provide those students with application documents. The bill would also task the federal education and agriculture departments with guiding states and colleges on the best ways to increase outreach to SNAP-eligible students.

“I accessed food assistance when I was in college; without it, I would not have had enough to eat,” Bonamici said in a statement. “...Many students have told me about the challenges they face in putting food on the table for themselves and their families while in school. The Opportunity to Address College Hunger Act will help students overcome barriers to the SNAP program and help students get the nutritious meals they need to thrive.”

Lee Ann Phillips, PSU’s Basic Needs Navigator, said a big benefit of the bill would be to lessen the stigma around accessing resources like SNAP for college students. In 2021, an Oregon bill made similar strides by allocating funds toward benefits navigator positions at every public college and university — including Phillips’ position.

“Previously, the stigma was incredibly strong,” Phillips said, referring to attitudes before the university opened its Basic Needs Hub. “Now, [students] come in and they know that the stigma has been lessened, and I think with SNAP assistance, it will be the same way, once it becomes normalized in that system.”

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In Phillips’ position, she connects students with different on- and off-campus resources, including SNAP.

She said if the bill passes, it could be really helpful for students in work-study programs who may not know they’re currently eligible for SNAP. But, there are still major barriers.

Phillips said although many students at PSU get approved for federal- and state-funded work-study jobs, only students who are currently doing those jobs are eligible for SNAP.

“Barriers we’ve run into at PSU are that there weren’t enough work-study jobs for students,” she said. “You actually have to be actively working in work-study … so it will not serve all students.”

The students Phillips works with at PSU come from a variety of diverse backgrounds. Many PSU students are “nontraditional” — students who didn’t go into college directly after graduating from high school. Nearly half of the university’s student population are the first in their families to go to college, and a quarter of PSU students have children.

Although the newly-introduced bill is focused on informing students in work-study programs about their SNAP eligibility, other students are also eligible for SNAP — including students with low incomes.

Phillips said at the very least, the bill would help increase visibility of the different resources available to students. She hopes that increased visibility will drive students to her office, to get support in filling out SNAP applications or to get their questions answered.

“The more we can do around visibility around this issue, especially on a federal level, the more that it’s going to be addressed, and I think we will have better retention rates and student success,” Phillips said. “Between SNAP and food pantries on campus, I think students do a heck of a lot better.”

Editor’s Note: a word was changed in this story to clarify the improvement members of Oregon’s Congressional delegation are hoping to see with their proposed legislation.

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