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UW food pantry the Open Seat

Samantha Arriozola sorts through donations for the Open Seat, an on-campus food pantry for UW-Madison students in need. Like many food pantries, the Open Seat accepts non-perishable and canned food items, but for many food pantries and food banks, monetary donations can be useful as well.

The federal agency overseeing the food stamps program has contributed to the plight of hungry college students by offering inadequate information about student eligibility on its website, according to Government Accountability Office report.

The study, done at the request of four Democratic U.S. Senators, is the first federal study of food insecurity on college campuses, and includes groundbreaking studies done at UW-Madison.

“This is an important moment for those of us who have been hearing about hunger on campus from students, administrators, and faculty for a very long time,” said Sara Goldrick-Rab, who conducted pioneering studies on hunger and homelessness in college at the University of Wisconsin-Madison before leaving in 2016. “This is the first federal report to acknowledge that campus food insecurity is a serious challenge, and it’s important that this message is being heard at the federal level.”

Goldrick-Rab started the Wisconsin HOPE Lab in 2013 to study issues affecting low-income students. Since her departure, HOPE continued to produce studies, four of which were among 31 cited in the GAO report. The institute closed earlier this year when it ran out of funding. Goldrick-Rab currently heads a similar effort at Temple.

UW-Madison, however, was not one of the 14 colleges surveyed in the federal study. The study looked at seven two-year and seven four-year colleges in California, Kentucky, Massachusetts and Michigan.

The GAO report noted that more than 650 colleges and universities housed food pantries for needy students. But it focused on the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, known as food stamps, which the report contends is woefully underutilized by eligible students.

Part of that is due to the complicated standards for eligibility. In 1980, Congress enacted a law that made most traditional students — those entering directly from high school who are still parent-dependent — ineligible for food stamps. But traditional students are now a minority.

According to U.S. Education Department data, about half of all undergraduate students in 2016 were financially independent, 22 percent had dependent children and 14 percent were single parents. The average age was 26 years old, and nearly 90 percent worked either full or part time.

The report found that the most common reason for food insecurity among college students is poverty, with most having at least one additional risk factor, such as being a first-generation student or a single parent.

The 31 studies that the GAO looked at showed food insecurity rates among students surveyed ranging from 9 percent to more than 50 percent, with 22 studies pegging the rate at more than 30 percent.

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The GAO estimates that more than 2 million students who could qualify for food stamps haven’t applied because college officials and students don’t understand the guidelines.

Many college officials and student weren’t aware that there were food insecurity issues on the campus, “which hinders their college’s efforts to address the issue,” the report says.

At nine of the 14 schools surveyed, the report says, “some college officials and students said that they were unfamiliar with or did not fully understand SNAP's student eligibility rules.”

That’s because the federal Food and Nutrition Service, which oversees the food stamp program, failed to include information about student eligibility on its website, the report says.

“While SNAP can supplement other federal aid for some low-income students, FNS does not share key information to help states better leverage SNAP to assist students,” the report says.

“At the same time,” the report notes, “FNS officials and officials at one state SNAP agency stressed the importance of having proper controls in place to prevent certain students from improperly receiving benefits.”

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Steven Elbow joined The Capital Times in 1999 and has covered law enforcement in addition to city, county and state government. He has also worked for the Portage Daily Register and has written for the Isthmus weekly newspaper in Madison.