Almost 40,000 College Students in Riverside County Are Now Eligible for CalFresh Benefits

Taylor Martinez

College students who are struggling with food and housing insecurity are encouraged to apply for a program that can help them stretch their food budgets and eat healthier, county officials and student advocates said this week.

Nearly 40,000 college students in Riverside County are now eligible for CalFresh. But officials say less than 10 percent of eligible students in the county have signed up.

Congress temporarily expanded food assistance to college students in January’s pandemic relief package, said Allison Gonzalez, assistant director of the Department of Public Social Services (DPSS).

“We want to make sure our local students know this help is available. They should not have to worry about being able to afford their next meal,” Gonzalez said. “Our caseworkers are ready to see if they are eligible and enroll them.”

Hunger and food insecurity are widespread on college campuses and impact as many as one in three students, according to a survey by the California Student Aid Commission.  Students who qualify for CalFresh receive a monthly benefit of $234, enough for about 60 jars of peanut butter.

Kalayah Wilson is among 436 CalFresh recipients at UC Riverside. Wilson, 21, a third-year undergraduate, balances online classes with her job as a campus food pantry worker, guiding peers to resources during the pandemic and urging them to see if they qualify for CalFresh.

Kalayah Wilson, 21, holds a bag of groceries during the weekly food distribution at the UCR campus food pantry. Wilson works to inform students about expanded eligibility for CalFresh benefits during the pandemic.

“This resource definitely helps me to live independently and eat healthy,” said Wilson. “It has motivated me to learn new recipes and try organic food items.”

Outreach efforts along with the yearlong pandemic have helped boost student enrollment into CalFresh, which is administered by Riverside County DPSS. Other local campuses also have dedicated resources to informing students about CalFresh and resources to help.

Mt. San Jacinto College (MSJC), for example, collaborates with a team to promote the program during weekly drive-through food distributions.  They are also preparing a private space inside a food pantry where students can sign up for CalFresh once their shuttered campuses reopen.

“Even with these efforts, we still struggle in helping our students to know what services are available to them,” said John Colson, vice president of Student Services at MSJC.

Student peer navigators are critical to inform and provide support, Wilson adds. “Sometimes all you need is that one person who is encouraging you to apply.”

Signing up involves checking on eligibility criteria and filling out an online application. If approved, the student will receive the food benefit within 30 days. Students who feel they might qualify can ask for assistance through their college campus or can apply online directly at students.getcalfresh.org.

How to apply:

Top five colleges with highest CalFresh participation:

  • Riverside City College District: 669
  • Mt. San Jacinto College: 467
  • UC Riverside: 436
  • College of the Desert: 216
  • CSU San Bernardino: 165

Source: Riverside County DPSS, March 2021

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