Hunger Among Inland Empire College Students Sparks Advocacy
San Bernardino Community College District hosts a roundtable with California Student Aid Commission and Inland Empire Leaders on April 21
- Over 181,000 college students may be going hungry without CalFresh assistance in Riverside and San Bernardino counties, according to the California Student Aid Commission.
- Roundtable to find solutions brings together San Bernardino Community College District, Riverside Community College District, Cal State San Bernardino, UC Riverside, Community Action Partnership of Riverside County, Community Action Partnership of San Bernardino County, and public officials from all levels of government.
By Kris Lovekin
The international flags around the room on the Crafton Hills College campus made it look like a United Nations summit. But a two-hour roundtable discussion on Friday organized by the San Bernardino Community College District and the California Student Aid Commission resulted in commitments of cooperation on getting better access to food for hungry students.
Chancellor Diana Z. Rodriguez of the San Bernardino Community College District spoke passionately about the issue, saying, “I never thought that student hunger would rank so high on my list of educational priorities. But it does. Students don’t learn when they are hungry.”
Those around the table included:
- Senator Rosilicie Ochoa Bogh
- Assembly Majority Leader Eloise Gomez Reyes
- San Bernardino County Supervisor Joe Baca, Jr.
- Gov. Gavin Newsom’s office
- Assemblymember Corey Jackson’s office
- San Bernardino County Supervisor Jesse Armendarez’s office
- Riverside County Supervisor Karen Spiegel’s office
Roundtable co-hosts included:
- Cal State University San Bernardino
- Community Action Partnership of Riverside County
- Community Action Partnership of San Bernardino County
- Riverside Community College District
- University of California, Riverside
U.S. Senator Alex Padilla sent a video message to the group, in which he stated, “We can’t let students sacrifice their health to afford a higher education.”
In his opening remarks, RCCD Chancellor Wolde-Ab Isaac noted, “The U.S. is the wealthiest nation in the world. California has the fourth largest economy. But, a disproportionate number of college students in the Inland Empire lack the basic necessities.” He observed, “We need to expand access to CalFresh and eliminate hunger as a barrier to higher education. Over the long term, we must wage war against poverty and inequity.”
They all agreed that mapped boundaries and privacy laws become hurdles for hungry students, as each program requires a new application. Even when students successfully jump the bureaucratic hurdles, the benefits come on EBT cards, and only 10 percent of college cafeterias accept them.
“We need to increase student access to CalFresh on and off campus,” said SBCCD Chancellor Rodriguez, referring to a program that helps low-income people in California buy healthy food. It is also known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) at the federal level.
Marlene Garcia, executive director of the California Student Aid Commission, called it a historic meeting. She said it is rare to have so many public agencies making time to be in the same room to talk about finding solutions to student hunger. It is a big problem in the Inland region, where over 181,000 college students may be going hungry without CalFresh assistance. Statewide, nearly 750,000 are eligible for CalFresh, but only 1 in 6 receive help.
“College students have historically been left out of food support because people assume that they are only temporarily poor,” Garcia said. But students fill out the federal financial aid paperwork and it contains so much information.
One policy change that might help is to make that one application apply to more programs. “Let the FAFSA pre-populate applications for other public assistance programs,” said Catalina Cifuentes, an executive director at the Riverside County Office of Education who also serves as California Student Aid Commission chair and commissioner.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, the federal government made applications for food aid easier. As the pandemic emergency orders expire next month, those benefits will become more limited.
There is a June 9 deadline for students to reapply for food aid, and they could get up to one more year of benefits, according to Allison Gonzales, an assistant director at the Riverside County Department of Public Social Services.
San Bernardino Supervisor Joe Baca, Jr. said his office could help make more information available to colleges about who has applied to county programs, to try to streamline other applications.
According to Angel Rodriguez, an associate vice chancellor at San Bernardino Community College District and California Student Aid commissioner, Baca Jr.’s pledge to share county data may catalyze a chain of collaboration within the group.
“It is mind-boggling that we have not been able to put this together,” said Assembly Majority Leader Eloise Gomez Reyes. “We are leaving half a billion federal dollars on the table. We are going to team up to bring that money back to our students.” Reyes is proposing two bills this year, AB 1514 and AB 928, which the California Student Aid Commission considers vital in improving access to food aid for students.
Making more people aware of student hunger resources could help, as some eligible students are not using them. “Either they don’t know about CalFresh or they are tired of proving over and over that they are low-income,” said Shalita Tillman, a director of special programs and workforce development at the San Bernardino Community College District. There is a stigma attached to accepting help, she said.
Ideas started popping up around the room. What about a YouTube channel to help struggling students with cooking skills, and financial management? What about an algorithm that knows if a student has applied to CalFresh, they would also qualify for CalWorks or for financial aid?
What if we don’t pay so much attention to which county they live in, we just get them the food resources? Could there be a check box where they opt-in to several programs at one time? Could a college mental health collaboration serve as a model for the collaboration around hunger?
“I’m leaving here very inspired with action items,” said Dr. Ivan Peña, a dean of student services at Crafton Hills College.
Chancellor Rodriguez said this is the first of what should be a valuable collaboration across boundaries to keep the needs of students as a first priority. She asked, “What can we do right now? Or as we say at my house, right now, right now.”
With the commitment and collaboration of the group, the issue of college student hunger in the Inland Empire may finally receive the attention and action it deserves.