Policymakers seem to think that all college students have a safety net.
They didn’t include us on the first or second stimulus checks, they failed to protect many who got kicked out of their dorms when the pandemic hit, and they make access to benefits really, really hard.
My school, the University of Minnesota, sent me an email in February saying that I might be eligible for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits by the looks of my financial information.
I don’t technically make enough in a month to cover both rent and groceries, so I stretch my earnings from the summer to cover food and other expenses throughout the school year.
I decided to give SNAP a try.
Having applied for MNsure several times with varying levels of success, I had a little bit of experience with “the system” and felt it would be worth the effort.
I was wrong, and I’m mad about it.
In February, the Biden administration instituted a coronavirus relief measure that temporarily lowered SNAP eligibility requirements for students.
According to a 2019 study by the Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice [PDF], more than 60% of students experienced food insecurity in the 30 days prior to the survey. Black, LGBTQ+ and other marginalized students demonstrated higher risk of basic needs insecurity.
The U is aware of the problem, and Boynton offers a free, no-proof necessary food pantry once a month in an attempt to combat student hunger.
The email connected me with Second Harvest, which sent me a questionnaire determining my eligibility before passing me to Hennepin County Services.
On the questionnaire, I wrote that I am work-study eligible and I work about 15 hours per week at Starbucks, plus 10 or so hours at my unpaid internship.
Hennepin County Services sent me an identical questionnaire, then requested a phone interview. I obliged and answered the same questions over the phone. During the interview, I clarified that I am work-study eligible, but do not participate in a work study because Starbucks pays more than the U does.
Then came the familiar prove-you’re-poor-enough process. I sent in the required documents, which ended up being a three-week process partially because of my own lack of urgency and partially due to bureaucracy.
During this period, I talked to Hennepin County Services probably four or five times on the phone. Each time, they asked if I were work-study eligible, and each time I clarified that I am, but that I do not participate in one.
It’s annoying to read that again and again, isn’t it?
Anyway, the county eventually accepted my documents. I called again to check the status of my application, and the sweet woman on the phone said that she wasn’t sure if I would be eligible. She vowed to call me back after checking with her supervisor.
Several hours later, she called to break the news that I wasn’t eligible because I didn’t participate in a work study or work more than 20 hours per week.
I reminded her that I did work more than 20 hours, but that some hours were at my unpaid internship. She said that it didn’t qualify either because of the unpaid nature, noting sadly that she had fought for me.
My documents prove that I’m poor enough. I work more than 20 hours per week. I love my internship, but believe me — I wouldn’t be doing it for free if I could get a paid one instead.
The sick thing is that if I worked at Starbucks for more than 20 hours per week, I would be eligible for the company’s more expensive health insurance and therefore forced off of MNsure, which is free for me.
Ultimately, I’ll be OK. I won’t go hungry and I have family who can cover me if absolutely necessary, though I prefer financial independence.
But other students are hungry.
Other students will face the same obstacles I did because they choose to work a higher-paying service job or, God forbid, an unpaid internship.
It shouldn’t be this hard to get help.