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Cal State campuses moving to help eligible students sign up for food stamps

Jessica Medina, of Fresno State's Food Security Project, describe's her campuses effort to combat student hunger. Adolfo Guzman-Lopez/KPCC

Nine California State University campuses are making plans this summer to help needy students apply for and use the Cal Fresh benefit (formerly known as food stamps).

The campuses will be splitting about $1 million in USDA funds next academic year to help students eligible for Cal Fresh to sign up, receive, and use the benefits on campus.

“We will reach over 9,000 eligible students and hopefully successfully enroll over 5,500," said Amie Riesen, program analyst for Center for Healthy Communities based at Chico State. "Just in that first year, that’s our projected target – we anticipate that we will far exceed that number."

Helping students get aid, she said, will improve the chances that they’ll earn their college degree.

The campus is administering the funds. CSU administrators don’t have a precise count of how many of their students are eligible for the Cal Fresh benefit but said that it parallels the percentage of students eligible for financial aid, which at some campuses is half of students.

Many college students eligible for the aid don’t apply.

“Students get very confused about some of the questions that are asked in the application,” said Stephanie Bianco, assistant director of the Center for Healthy Communities at Chico State. “So being able to help them understand what they’re asking, getting documents to prove that this is accurate information is something they really need help in. The primary reason why people aren’t signing up is how difficult it is.”

The CSU campuses in Humboldt, Chico, San Luis Obispo, San Jose, Channel Islands, Fresno, Los Angeles, Northridge, and Long Beach are set to receive the funds. Bianco said the list may change slightly.

The funds will be reaching students who are trying to juggle a university education with work, taking care of family members, and housing insecurity.

“The paperwork was such a hassle, being re-certified for Cal Fresh,” said Cal State Long Beach senior Shelv Candler “I had to go down to the county two or three times, had to show proof of W2s and pay stubs.”

Candler shared her story of being homeless at the CSU Food and Housing Security Conference.

The CSU Chancellor’s Office hosted and paid for the conference at the university system’s Long Beach headquarters.

“When I was at Fresno State I was on food stamps and lived in county-supported housing,” White said, and that shapes his reaction when he hears students now in similar financial situations.

“It makes me extraordinarily non-judgmental that when our students come forward with any issues they may be facing, I’m not one to judge, ‘oh that’s too bad, or that’s good or bad’ but rather how can we find help for you to succeed,” White said.

White’s push to have the system’s 23 campuses do more to help students is garnering some national praise.

“System-wide initiatives are going to be stronger,” said Clare Cady, director of the College and University Food Bank Alliance. “Now you have a nine institution learning cohort that will be developing best practices and then the next round, when more schools come on because they will see the benefit of the program they will be able to learn from the lessons that these schools pioneering this have already learned.”

Some CSU campuses have some catching up to do.

CSU Fresno had one of the most sophisticated efforts. Campus officials described a food pantry that looks like a small grocery store, a philanthropic fund, and a smartphone app that tells students when free catered food is available on campus. Other campuses described partnerships with local hotels to provide emergency housing for students.

During the breakout workshops representatives from other campuses had a lot of questions about how it was done.