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Press release

Confusing Assistance Requirements Contribute to Food Insecurity Among College Students

Philadelphia | March 25, 2024

County agency workers in California offer solutions to get SNAP access to eligible students, according to a new study in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior

Food insecurity among college students is associated with negative physical and mental health and lower academic performance and graduation rates. A recent research studyopens in new tab/window in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavioropens in new tab/window, published by Elsevier, investigates why over half of college students eligible for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)—the nation’s largest food assistance program—do not apply.

Lead study author Suzanna M. Martinez, PhD, MS, Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics, University of California San Francisco, explained, “In California, SNAP is known as CalFresh and despite policies and communication to improve college students’ access to CalFresh, participation remains low, with approximately 78% of those eligible not receiving benefits.”

While CalFresh benefits are paid by the federal government, county agencies are responsible for implementing policies, determining eligibility, processing applications, and distributing funds. This study conducted focus groups and interviews with county staff to determine how agency workers interpret the complex criteria for students to meet SNAP eligibility. Questions focused on how students’ applications differed from community applicants, steps taken when processing student applications, student-specific training, and suggested improvements to the process.

Caption: County agency workers noted the inability to reach students by phone or mail as one of the barriers to successfully completing a student application for assistance in a new study published in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior (Credit: JackF/Adobe Stock).

Five central themes were identified in interviews: (1) a need for more consistency in policy dissemination and program administration, (2) student exemptions and the application process are perceived as challenges for students, (3) facilitators of successfully processing student SNAP applications, (4) tracking policy changes is burdensome, and (5) eliminate the student rules.

Study findings illustrate that SNAP rules are challenging for students as well as those involved in the implementation of the rules. Also, eligibility requirements written over 50 years ago, based on the assumption that college students are primarily from middle-class families, are outdated. The research supports simplifying the student SNAP process to increase participation for eligible students, especially for historically minoritized racial and ethnic groups and low-income students for whom equitable access to SNAP benefits is critical.

Dr. Martinez added, "The timing of this study resulted in a natural experiment since COVID-19–related SNAP modifications streamlined the student application process and reduced administrative burden. These modifications alleviated some challenges discussed by county workers, confirming existing opinions to eliminate the student rules.”

Notes for editors

The article is "SNAP Student Rules Are Not So Snappy: Lessons Learned From a Qualitative Study of California County Agency Workers,” by Suzanna M. Martinez, PhD, MS; Sonali Singh, MPH; Erin Esaryk, MPH; and Lorrene Ritchie, PhD, RD ( in new tab/window). It appears in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior, volume 56, issue 3 (March 2024), published by Elsevier.

The article is openly available for 90 days at in new tab/window.

The authors acknowledge the California State Legislature for funding provided to the University of California (UC) to address students’ basic needs, including this study.

Full text of the article is also available to credentialed journalists upon request; contact Eileen Leahy at +1 732 406 1313 or [email protected]opens in new tab/window to obtain a copy. To schedule an interview with the author(s), please contact Suzanna M. Martinez, PhD, MS, Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics, University of California San Francisco, at [email protected]opens in new tab/window.

An audio podcast featuring an interview with Suzanna M. Martinez, PhD, MS, and other information for journalists are available at in new tab/window. Excerpts from the podcast may be reproduced by the media with permission from Eileen Leahy.

About the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior (JNEB)

The Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior (JNEB), the official journal of the Society for Nutrition Education and Behavior (SNEB), is a refereed, scientific periodical that serves as a resource for all professionals with an interest in nutrition education and dietary/physical activity behaviors. The purpose of JNEB is to document and disseminate original research, emerging issues, and practices relevant to nutrition education and behavior worldwide and to promote healthy, sustainable food choices. It supports the Society's efforts to disseminate innovative nutrition education strategies, and communicate information on food, nutrition, and health issues to students, professionals, policymakers, targeted audiences, and the public.

The Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior features articles that provide new insights and useful findings related to nutrition education research, practice, and policy. The content areas of JNEB reflect the diverse interests of health, nutrition, education, Cooperative Extension, and other professionals working in areas related to nutrition education and behavior. As the Society's official journal, JNEB also includes occasional policy statements, issue perspectives, and member communications. www.jneb.orgopens in new tab/window

About Elsevier

As a global leader in scientific information and analytics, Elsevier helps researchers and healthcare professionals advance science and improve health outcomes for the benefit of society. We do this by facilitating insights and critical decision-making with innovative solutions based on trusted, evidence-based content and advanced AI-enabled digital technologies.

We have supported the work of our research and healthcare communities for more than 140 years. Our 9,500 employees around the world, including 2,500 technologists, are dedicated to supporting researchers, librarians, academic leaders, funders, governments, R&D-intensive companies, doctors, nurses, future healthcare professionals and educators in their critical work. Our 2,900 scientific journals and iconic reference books include the foremost titles in their fields, including Cell Press, The Lancet and Gray’s Anatomy.

Together with the Elsevier Foundationopens in new tab/window, we work in partnership with the communities we serve to advance inclusion and diversity in science, research and healthcare in developing countries and around the world.

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Eileen Leahy


+1 732 238 3628

E-mail Eileen Leahy