Above: Michelle Fausto (left), 28th Class Emerson Fellow, with Sandra Cuyuch, CalFresh Manager at the FRESH Basic Needs Hub.
The day that field placements were announced, I remember opening my email to see “University of California Irvine – FRESH Basic Needs Hub.” As a California native and a UCLA alumna, I was pleasantly surprised to know that I would remain in California and continue to work toward equity and social justice at the university level. However, this time I’d be about 50 miles south of my alma mater.
During college I navigated being a first-generation college student and witnessed how my upbringing in a low-income immigrant household shaped my experience. The prestige of my university meant that other students could have wildly different lives from mine, which was reflected in the way they spent their weekends and spring breaks. Just from my identities alone, I could’ve been predicted to have lower academic achievement and be less likely to graduate from college. Instead, I studied, interned, volunteered, and worked at my campus job any chance I could, often at the expense of my basic needs. Even with scholarships I was not making enough to purchase healthy and nutritious groceries and opted to purchase quick snacks and microwave meals. Sometimes I skipped meals altogether because I didn’t have time to eat in between my commitments. I decided to seek help by applying to CalFresh1, which I had familiarity with because my family grew up using it.
Everything came full circle when I was informed I would be working on a CalFresh Outreach and Enrollment project at my placement. I learned from my supervisor that there are about 12,000 CalFresh-eligible students at the University of California Irvine (UCI), but there is massive under-enrollment because students aren’t aware that they’re eligible. I thought about how I was fortunate to have known about my own eligibility as a college student (though there’s no fortune in one’s situation making them eligible for CalFresh in the first place). This number made me ponder the (in)accessibility of CalFresh knowledge for college-eligible populations. It didn’t necessarily come as a surprise since college students are often overlooked in the conversation on hunger and food insecurity in the United States.
The FRESH Basic Needs Hub recognizes the prevalence of food insecurity on college campuses and highlights how basic needs insecurity greatly impacts a student’s mental and physical health, academic performance, work productivity, and holistic success. The domino effect that hunger has on the college student experience can be long-lasting, especially the effects of poor mental health and poor academic performance on life beyond college. Mitigating the issue of hunger on college campuses requires both short-term and long-term solutions. On the long-term side, CalFresh is a sustainable program that ensures recipients get consistent money for groceries each month.
My project entails increasing student awareness about CalFresh as both a short-term solution (when students find themselves experiencing a difficult time) or a long-term solution (for students without a safety net). My project grew out of one-time pandemic funding allocations from the State of California to increase CalFresh outreach at higher education institutions. With this new funding source, part of my role includes working with the CalFresh team to upscale outreach strategies, especially by increasing and introducing new CalFresh events, conducting more targeted outreach, and increasing application assistance.
Throughout the fall my role was hands-on and my days were filled with community outreach. This past fall UCI returned to in-person instruction for the first time since spring 2020, so the CalFresh team was eager to get back into the groove of conducting in-person outreach. One outreach strategy that the CalFresh team enjoys is tabling on ring road, a pedestrian-heavy walkway that circles the entire campus. My first day I arrived early to help prop up the CalFresh-branded canopy and set up the table with fliers, information cards, and promotional materials such as insulated tote bags. Soon enough, I saw students approach the table because they recognized the name “CalFresh” or because one of the volunteers waved them down. I spoke with several students that day, informing them about CalFresh, their eligibility, and the next steps in applying. Many students were surprised to learn that they are potentially eligible for the program because of special exemptions for college students. Among them include being a federal work study recipient, a Summer Bridge participant, and a student registered with the Disability Services Center. Most students held the misconception that they had to meet the 20- hour work week requirement to be eligible, not knowing that there are special student exemptions.
Additionally, I was able to collaborate with the CalFresh team to coordinate two “CalFresh Enrollment Parties.” During these two-day events FRESH invites several county CalFresh eligibility caseworkers to campus to conduct post-application interviews and provide students with their Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) card on the same day. As a result of these parties, a total of 106 students were approved for CalFresh.
The CalFresh team doesn’t conduct outreach just as a stand-alone strategy to encourage students to apply to CalFresh with the county. They also provide one-on-one application assistance via Zoom. Most of these assistance appointments are led by CalFresh Advocates, a team of student workers trained to understand the CalFresh application process. I believe one of the most admirable aspects of the CalFresh team is that student voices and voices of those with lived experiences in food insecurity are centered in the work they do. Students understand the UCI experience better than anyone, so having students assist other students introduces a level of trust and vulnerability. I was also trained to conduct appointments and have been able to help students apply for CalFresh, which has allowed me to think of new outreach strategies in the process.
As I wrap up my field placement and begin to finalize my Hunger Free Community Report that evaluates these CalFresh outreach efforts while providing recommendations for future efforts, I leave with a greater understanding of how to approach hunger on college campuses. Two key lessons I have learned, which I encourage other college campus anti-hunger leaders to think about, are:
- States and universities must do the work of allocating funding to campuses so that basic needs advocates have a foundation to establish necessary programs and services. Many of the new outreach efforts that the FRESH Basic Needs Hub has been able to pursue this academic year were the result of state and university funding.
- BIPOC students face hunger and food insecurity at rates disproportionately higher than the average college student. CalFresh efforts must target BIPOC students and must involve staff that understand the BIPOC student experience and intersections of race with immigration, foster youth, and low-income status.
My time at the FRESH Basic Needs Hub has ingrained in me the knowledge on how to lead with others and think critically and systemically in my work. When you’re working at the local grassroots level it’s easy to get lost in the “immediate” solution to hunger and ignore the systemic implications. Creating a nationwide effort to eradicate hunger on college campuses is part of the larger solution. I am looking forward to continuing to build my knowledge about SNAP outreach and administration at my policy site in Washington, D.C., while employing the community-building skills I gained at my field placement.
- CalFresh is the name of the state implementation of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) in California