Student surge in SNAP eligibility

With the temporary easing of restrictions during the pandemic, students are signing up for food benefits in droves.

Health+Promotion+Specialist+Rebecca+Leighton+poses+for+a+portrait+in+front+of+the+Nutritious+U+food+pantry+bags+in+Coffman+Memorial+Union+on+Wednesday%2C+Feb.+17.+Leighton+leads+the+campus-wide+strategic+SNAP+outreach+project.

Shannon Doyle

Health Promotion Specialist Rebecca Leighton poses for a portrait in front of the Nutritious U food pantry bags in Coffman Memorial Union on Wednesday, Feb. 17. Leighton leads the campus-wide strategic SNAP outreach project.

Emalyn Muzzy, City Reporter

Every Sunday, Edward Cruz II, a fourth-year environmental science policy and management student at the University of Minnesota, hops into the back seat of his roommate’s yellow Nissan Juke and heads to the Roseville Walmart.

Once there, they start in the produce section, weaving through aisles as they make their way toward the back of the store. In his weekly haul, Cruz said he always has green onions, vegetarian fake meat and tortillas.

Once finished, the group walks to the front of the store to pay, and Cruz swipes his EBT, electronic benefits transfer, card at the register.

Cruz is one of many college students enrolled in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), a government assistance initiative once called “food stamps.” In December, student SNAP requirements changed, allowing more students to join the program.

With the new qualifications, a student needs to qualify for work-study or have a $0 estimated parent contribution on their FAFSA and make under $1,755 a month if they are a single person.

“As of right now, it’s just a temporary exemption until 30 days after the emergency order, the pandemic end or until the person’s recertification, whichever is later,” said Becca Leighton, the health promotion specialist at Boynton Health.

Leighton wanted to make sure students knew about these changes, so she gave a push to One Stop Student Services, which sent out an email to 10,000 students to let them know they may be eligible for SNAP.

This is not the first time Leighton has helped inform students about their options for food assistance. In fall 2019, she created a survey that helped determine student’s eligibility for SNAP. If they qualified, they would be referred to Second Harvest Heartland, a national food bank, to get help to sign up for SNAP.

“Over the first three semesters we’ve been doing this survey, we had about 500 total students referred,” Leighton said. “In the past two weeks, we’ve had almost 700.”

More than half of the 10,000 students opened One Stop’s emails, which is a “very solid open rate,” said Julie Selander, director of One Stop Student Services.

Signing up for SNAP can take up to a month, Cruz said, but Second Harvest Heartland and staff from Nutritious U — the campus food pantry — can act as advocates and help students with the sign-up process.

Eliza Scholl, a second-year sociology major, signed up for assistance after receiving a One Stop email last fall. She now receives more than $200 a month, which is more than she can spend. Scholl said SNAP has made her life much easier.

“Before I started using SNAP, I was trying to spend as little as possible on food. Even just per item, that means that there’s a whole calculus story in your head,” she said. “There’s a certain amount of space that can now be devoted to other things because I’m not concerned when I go grocery shopping.”

Cruz seconds that thought, saying that SNAP makes his life simpler. He said he makes enough money to pay for his groceries, but SNAP makes him feel relieved.

“SNAP has allowed me to partake in foods that I otherwise probably wouldn’t get as frequently, which is, in general, stress relieving,” Cruz said. “Obviously, who doesn’t enjoy eating?”