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California boosts efforts to stamp out hunger on campus

Two-thirds of community college students have trouble paying for food, according to a new 24-state study. California schools are combining federal aid with campus food pantries and other programs to help.

Anthony Hiseley was determined to stay in college without turning to his family for support.

His mother, an at-home nurse who cares for his ailing sister and stepfather, couldn’t afford to fund his education. So Mr. Hiseley relied on a combination of financial aid, federal loans, and what jobs he could snag through the year to pay for tuition, rent, and food. His sophomore year, he sold his car to pay his bills. He would order water when his friends went out to eat. Finally, he made a habit of missing not only breakfast, but also lunch.

“I would skip meals until 4 in the afternoon,” says Hiseley, a health services administration major at California State University, Chico.

Then, his junior year, his university helped enroll him in CalFresh, California’s version of the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Hiseley found he was eligible for nearly $200 a month for groceries.

“I’m not saying I have a lot of money,” says Hiseley, now a senior. “But I’m not stressed about every month’s bills and rent as I used to be.”

With a new study of 33,000 students in 24 states – the broadest study of its kind – showing that two-thirds of community college students have trouble paying for food – the stereotype of the “starving college student” is more literal in America than many people ever realized. Indeed, food pantries are becoming almost as common on campuses as bookstores. More colleges have realized that it takes more than a cafeteria meal plan to keep today’s students from going hungry.

To combat this, higher-education institutions across California are working this year to expand CalFresh enrollment among their students. The Cal State system, for example, is expanding its program to 10 more campuses. The enterprise comes on the heels of legislation passed in 2014 that broadens eligibility requirements for the program and has seen buy-in from not only Cal State but the University of California and state community college systems – all of which have been at the forefront of efforts to provide students with the wraparound services they need for stability.

The convergence of legislative action, campus activism, and academic interest suggests there’s a broad shift in the way California is approaching the issue, says Jessica Bartholow, a legislative advocate and expert on federal antihunger policy at the Western Center on Law and Poverty.

“If we’re going to put federal dollars into educating our young people, why would we let something as simple as lack of food undermine that investment?” she says. “It’s something we can solve, if we do it right.”

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