Democrats in the House and Senate are introducing legislation Tuesday that would make pandemic-related food benefits for college students permanent. The push is being led by Sens. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and Bernie Sanders, a Vermont independent.
In the December relief package, Congress increased the number of low-income college students eligible for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits for the duration of the pandemic. That included students who are eligible for work study, have an expected family contribution of zero dollars, or qualify for a maximum Pell Grant on their federal financial aid form. According to The Century Foundation, this expansion affects about 3 million college students.
The legislation proposed Tuesday would make these changes permanent, including requiring the U.S. Education Department to notify students that they may be eligible for SNAP when they fill out their student aid applications. The bill would also require the department to collect data on hunger and food insecurity and would create a $1 billion-a-year grant program for institutions to address hunger on campus.
"Far too many college students struggle to meet their basic needs while they get their education and the pandemic has made this problem even worse," Warren said in a statement to NPR. "As students take on a mountain of student loan debt, they shouldn't have to choose between paying tuition and eating."
The push comes amid new research that shows 39% of two-year college students are facing food insecurity; for students at four-year schools the number affected is 29%, according to Temple University's Hope Center for College, Community and Justice.
Before the pandemic, in 2019, the U.S. Government Accountability Office issued a report on hunger among college students, concluding that more than a third of students don't always have enough to eat and that federal systems already in place, including SNAP, could do a better job of helping them.
Many colleges have increased food benefits for their students, creating or expanding emergency grants, food pantries and other forms of assistance. State legislatures in several places including Virginia and Massachusetts have also moved to address issues of hunger on campus.