Starving students: how the pandemic highlighted barriers in access to basic needs in higher education

A look at food insecurity among college students who lost access to campus resource


Jules Kutner faced a sudden loss of income as a result of coronavirus campus closures in March 2020. A graduate student and researcher studying Child and Adolescent Development at San Francisco State University, Kutner was furloughed from her full-time position as aadministrative assistant in the counseling office. With less money coming in she started to worry about how she could afford her next meals— which led her to fall into a depression as well.   

It’s the price you pay psychologically, when you’re thinking like, I only have $20, what am I going to make for dinner later?

— Jules Kutner, SF State graduate student

“It’s the price you pay psychologically, when you’re thinking like, I only have $20, what am I going to make for dinner later? Because I have four hours of work that I need to do, because I have two presentations next week, and this and that…” 

Though grateful she didn’t lose her job entirely like so many campus workers did- she was offered a part-time student position for less pay she turned to public assistance programs like CalFresh and pandemic unemployment to bridge her income gap and allow her access to healthy food. But a small discrepancy in her CalFresh verification paperwork caused her food benefits to lapse at a particularly inopportune time. 

“The system itself is very antiquated or bureaucratic or what have you,” she says as she thinks about her experience trying to secure benefits through Alameda County Social Services, the agency that process CalFresh claims in the city of Berkeley.  

Kutners experience with nearly losing her benefits during the pandemic had a huge mental impact on a student who was already overwhelmed with the rigors of online school and work.  

“I had some really intense personal stuff going on,” Kutner shares, “and I was like, I don’t have the space for this, and I couldn’t easily figure out what had happened. I was like… this is ridiculous.” 

Students across California who lost access to food and housing because of COVID-19 have turned to public assistance programs like CalFreshfood banks and unemployment benefits to survive through the dark months of the pandemic.  In February 2021, California State University, Fullerton published an assessment of the impact of the pandemic on students’ access to basic needs. Out of the 8,203 students that participated, 80% reported that they relied on some form of financial assistance since March 2020, and 49% relied on two or more forms of assistance. Unemployment claims in California increased 1,227% in April 2020 from one year prior, according to data collected from the Employment Development Department (EDD)—representing the sudden need of nearly 2.9 million unemployed Californians.  

And, yes, while the promise of widespread inoculation sometime in the summer and fading memories of empty grocery store shelves may offer hope, the ripple effects of closures are still felt hard among students who now face food and basic needs insecurity as a result of losing access to their campus’ resources.   

The term ‘food insecurity’ is defined by the USDA as insufficient access to nutritionally adequate and safe foods, or the limited ability to access food in socially acceptable ways. 

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, known as CalFresh in Californiais intended to provide benefits for low-income individuals to purchase the food items needed to maintain proper nutrition.  

Financial aid and grants can generally cover tuition at higher education institutions but are almost never enough to cover textbook and other school-related expenses. This leaves students without parental support to pay their own way. Often times, this results in having little or no extra money on hand to cover emergency food and housing situations— which have been exacerbated during the pandemic.   

Cindy Santos, 20, a psychology major at SF Statewas unable to return to her job as a checker at Macyduring the pandemic for medical reasons that placed her at a higher risk of contracting COVID-19. She applied for Pandemic Unemployment Insurance in December 2020 as her only viable option for secure income 

Santos sent her application and verifying paperwork via mail to the EDD and was shocked to get a letter back weeks later stating that she needed to submit her verification documents again in order to complete her claim—the letter said that the previous documents were never received. She made another trip to the post office and mailed her documents. As of May 2020, she hasn’t heard anything back from the department.  

“I’ve tried calling their [Unemployment Insurance Customer Service] number, but no one ever answers” she said, “and I have no clue if I should make another claim. I’m using some of my financial aid money to buy groceries and to cover rent right now, but it isn’t enough for the future.” 

I’m using some of my financial aid money to buy groceries and to cover rent right now, but it isn’t enough for the future.

— Cindy Santos, SF State psychology major

Students have come to discover that the process of getting CalFresh is not as easy as it should be in a time of such great need. In the CSUF study, 22% of students reported that they were not able to obtain financial assistance due to difficulties with the application or not having the required paperwork to substantiate their income. 

Jules recalls her repeated attempts to get CalFresh benefits. They said I didn’t qualify before the pandemic because I was making too much. And so, I reapplied, maybe a couple of months after the pandemic started, and it took over six weeks for it to process.”  

The program’s clunky sign-up process requires documents and verification that make it all the more difficult to receive benefits. In addition to completing a basic eligibility screening, individuals must also meet the definition of a student as set forth by the program. This includes being between ages 18 and 49, of sound body and mind to work and enrollment at least half-time at a 2– or 4-year institution.   

A student applicant must also meet one of the many exemptions, even during the pandemic. This includes being employed at least 20 hours per week and eligibility for federal work study or enrollment in a state-funded program that increases employability, such as the Educational Opportunity Program. Students with disabilities must prove that they receive Supplemental Security Income or similar disability payments; and those under the DREAM act or who otherwise do not have citizenship do not qualify for CalFresh at all. 

Dr. Zubaida Qamar, an assistant professor of Nutrition and Dietetics at San Francisco State University, has spent years researching the ways in which cultural and socioeconomic factors affect the health of minority communities.  

“Usually, in research or in literature, we have seen that people of color and first generation [students]… are particularly more impacted because of these various sorts of challenges and barriers that are put into place,” she shares.  

Qamar is a lead researcher for the Basic Needs Initiative at SF State and works toward understanding food insecurity among students.  

“I have the privilege of being a native English speaker and native to California,” Kutner said. “So, the familiarity is a privilege, and even with that [applying for CalFresh] is cumbersome,” Kutner realizes it must be even harder for people with language barriers or similar access issues.  

Threats in accessibility to basic needs have led Qamar to conduct further research during the pandemic. In fall 2020, Qamar, with the help of graduate research assistants, concluded a study of roughly 280 students from diverse racial and ethnic categoriesranging from undergraduate freshman to seniors. The study was meant to quantify levels of basic needs insecurity on the campus from an access perspective. She noted the sample population was very representative of what San Francisco State is like.” About 73% responded that they were experiencing food insecurity- not too different from pre-COVID studies, though still a staggering number of students 

Levalasi Loi-On is a student success coordinator for Asian American and Pacific Islander Retention (ASPIRE) at SF State, which works to serve high-needs Asian American and Pacific Islander students through targeted support groups and peer-mentoring. Loi-On also sits on the Basic Needs committee and has been paying attention to access issues of AAPI students that she works with.  

“In the past year… there was a decrease in the students that I work with being able to access campus resources such as Basic Needs or AS Gator Groceries, or physical services in our campus community that will help students who are here feel safe or feel a sense of belonging.” 

Though emphasized in the past several months, higher education students access to basic needs was an issue long before COVID-19.  

A CSU study conducted in 2018 found that 41.6% of undergraduate students were experiencing food insecurity across 23 campuses. A 2016 UC Undergraduate Experience Survey, examined by the UC Global Food Initiative, revealed that 44% of students on UC campuses had inadequate access to food.  

A CSU study conducted in 2018 found that 41.6% of undergraduate students were experiencing food insecurity across 23 campuses.

The San Francisco-Marin Food Bank, a primary supplier of fresh and prepackaged foods to six college food pantries around the Bay Area, conducted its own needs assessment in 2018 to gauge the level of food insecurity on the campuses it served. They found that 77% of students surveyed were worried about running out of food before they got money to buy more, 85% could not afford to eat healthy meals regularly, and 50% experienced food insecurity 3 or more times each month.   

Another gripe of the CalFresh program is the semi-annual SAR-7 report, which caused Jules to lose her benefits for a period of time during COVID.  

“I thought that I had filled it out correctly with the [right] paperwork. But then I guess I didn’t and then it was like, oh, you filled this out incorrectly…your benefits are canceled.” 

In order to qualify for continued benefits, CalFresh recipients must submit this report every six months. Recipients are required to provide notices of changes in their job status, income, housing and a projection of possible situations in the proceeding months that could affect their eligibility for the program. But the unpredictable nature of life during pandemic makes it hard for many people, especially students with roommates and evolving income situations, to give a solid estimation of what’s to come.  

77% of students surveyed were worried about running out of food before they got money to buy more; 85% could not afford to eat healthy meals regularly.

— San Francisco-Marin Food Bank

Many students who seek benefits also feel shame about being in need and reaching out for help 

“You don’t want to look like you need help,” Kutner said, noting there’s this “idealized individualism of American culture of like ‘I did it on my own, I picked myself up and I’m fine, I didn’t ask for help.’ And it’s like, no, we’re social creatures.”  

She said her experiences using her benefits card at grocery stores around her neighborhood varied. One such experience found her at Trader Joes in Berkeley, and when she pulled out her benefits card to pay, the checker asked how she could apply for CalFresh benefits herself. Kutner happily walked her through the process of applying, a discourse she feels should be far more normalized in younger generations, who often think too much about how they appear to others. Though, she still finds herself questioning if her appearance aligns with what others think someone in need should look like.  

“I’ve had experiences at Berkeley Bowl where I’m checking out and I’m looking like, maybe someone who’s white and privileged, and tall and well-dressed, and when I took the card out to use it, [the checker], their whole demeanor shifted, but in an ‘oh let me help you’ sort of way.” 

Still, she is not discouraged from using her CalFresh card, even if every swipe brings with it a different experience at the grocery store checkout counter. After all the difficulties of the pandemic, she is grateful to have enough money to purchase food at all and urges others to think about the program as a service available to them when they need it.  

“Every time that card gets reloaded, I feel so much gratitude. I mean, it just gave me goosebumps thinking about it, because this is what it’s all about, I should feel no shame. I pay taxes into this.” 

She advocates for anyone experiencing food insecurity at all, especially during a time when there is such a heightened demand for access, to look in to CalFresh benefits.  

 Solutions through advocacy and literacy 

 Zubaida Qamar believes that the issues in access to basic needs resources is less a matter of availability and more one of literacy. While college campuses such as SF State have programs set up to address increased need during the pandemic, there is still work to be done to promote these services and raise awareness within the campus community. 

“Students may know that these resources exist, but they don’t know how to apply for them or even how to start accessing them … and that is very specific to us being an urban commuter campus,” she shares.  

SF State is situated in a primarily urban neighborhood, where a majority of students commute to the campus from other cities around the Bay Area. In the fall 2019 semester, 93% of undergraduate students lived off campus and commuted daily, according to the 2019-2020 Common Data Set. Even before the campus was closed to in-person learning, many commuter students may have missed out on campus signage advertising basic needs programs that are available to them. Of course, this has become a more severe issue as all in-person campus activities remain suspended 

The best way to reach students who may not know of the resources available to them during this time, Qamar saidis social media platforms. The needs assessment that she conducted revealed that SF State students primarily use Instagram- a platform that SF State programs have started integrating into their own basic needs awareness campaigns.  

Peter Hopf is the coordinator for Gator Groceries, a food pantry on the SF State campus run by Associated Students and sponsored by the San Francisco-Marin Food Bank. The pantry served between 700 and 800 students weekly before the pandemic. Formerly operating in a larger annex of the campus, the operation has had to scale back because of student relocations brought on by coronavirus that have cut many off from accessing the service. Now Peter sees about 100 to 150 students coming in weekly, a significant chunk of which are alumni who have families to feed. 

Before the pandemic, Gator Groceries was set up in a farmer’s market style, where students would grab an empty box and fill it with food of their choosing. Tables often included fresh fruits and vegetables, packaged and canned items and frozen goods, on occasion. 

 Now, with social distancing and sanitary precautions in mind, student volunteers pre-pack boxes for distribution. Still, boxes contain up to 70% fresh fruits and vegetables, as well as canned beans and soups, snack items and cooking oils. Though, this new method of distribution may restrict quantities for those in greater need.   

As Hopf explains, “one of those boxes is only good for enough for a family of four, and we are trying to get food out as many people as possible. I[students] have a family that is bigger with kids, and they need a few more servings, they’re welcome to grab a second box.” 

Gator Groceries is one of the six college pantries established across the Bay Area by the San Francisco-Marin Food Bank. In the first half of 2020, SF-Marin Food Bank distributed 179,000 pounds of fresh and non-perishable food items to over 900 students weekly. The SF State food pantry is one of the only two that continued to distribute food through shelter-in-place, along with UCSF’s Student Food Market.  

In the first half of 2020, SF-Marin Food Bank distributed 179,000 pounds of fresh and non-perishable food items to over 900 students weekly.

Diane Stark, the manager of foundation partnerships for SF-Marin Food Bank, said that, “we are open to the possibility of establishing another college pantry in San Francisco, if we can do so safely and identify an appropriate partner.” 

Diane says that the purpose of college pantries is to reach students in underserved communities, such as those receiving CalFresh, the first in their family to attend college, or taking care of children, or have another social or economic circumstance that places them in need. A 2018 survey at the SF State college pantry revealed that 60% of participants were, in fact, first-generation college students that were struggling with needs access. 

Another goal of the college pantries, she says, is to promote healthy eating and cooking independence. Peter Hopf agrees that this goal is an upcoming focus of Gator Groceries’ social media campaigns, as coronavirus continues to make healthy eating difficult for students.  

“We’re trying to get out more social media materials, and I hope that will engage students enough. Soon, you’ll be seeing some kind of new marketing material that we’re going to be posting out there, giving students access to cooking demos.” 

Even with modifications that allow Gator Groceries to continue serving students during the campus closure, the issues of access and awareness of what the program offers remain pertinent as students miss out on physical promotion of this and other servicesPeter hopes social media cooking demos will make enough of an impact on students 

“I just feel like it’s really hard to get in touch with students right now. Because students have so much going on and are worried about just getting through the semester,” he says.  

Zubaida Qamar agrees that proper dialogue around food insecurity and access, along with promoting healthy ways to prepare foods from pantries, will solve for at least some basic needs issues among students at SF State and beyond.   

“Let’s say you get a spaghetti squash; you may not even know what that is. And even if you do, you may not know how to use it. It’s going to sit on your counter and eventually get discarded, and it didn’t do anything to resolve the issue.” 

She believes this is a situation that could be solved for with increased food literacyWhile creating recipe videos that students can actually follow and showing demos on how to prepare foods quickly are a large part of food education, there are some points that should be answered first. This includes broader questions and gaps in knowledge that can serve to educate students on how to access campus programs, and what to do to best support their peers in situations of need.  

“First of all,” Qamar notes, it’s educating everyone on what food insecurity is, and how much of it exists on our campus. Then, what are the resources? How can they get involved? How can they use them? And if someone doesn’t need these resources, but they want to be an advocate or an ally for this for the cause, how can they get involved in that sense?” 

Qamar has set up focus groups on the SF State campus to spark the conversations necessary to answer these questions. In the spring 2021 academic term, she acquired enough funding to conduct four focus groups of about five to six students each day. Lasting about 90 to 120 minutes, she asks the group a series of questions surrounding food insecurity, and how their situation was impacted by the pandemic. She also asks what they see they would like to see in the future in terms of programs and research to address needs insecurity on campus.  

Qamar also offers gift cards to grocery stores as an incentive to participate in the forum, which can often include sensitive topics for students to open up about.  

She emphasizes the importance of cooperation across disciplines to promote needs equity and education, which includes professors facilitating conversations about insecurity“That’s another important piece,” she continues, “professors need to be educated. First of all, that this issue exists. And that they should be able to give resources to their students [when] needed… there are some talks about adding that information to course syllabi.” 

Qamar stresses the importance of working together as a campus community to combat and destigmatize issues of needs access through meaningful dialogue.  

“You know, we need to look into these interdisciplinary collaborations… one person from one field is working with another person from another field, because they all bring in different skill sets, different expertise and then working together to create a successful solution for an issue at hand.”  

SF State has introduced Food+Shelter+Success to further promote programs available to students in need. Under the umbrella of CSU Basic Needs InitiativeFood+Shelter+Success addresses food and housing insecurity on the SF State campus and offers economic support programs to assist with basic needs access 

Jewlee Gardner is the assistant director for Health Promotion & Wellness (HPW) at SF State and oversees the program. She has noticed the sharp increase in students’ basic needs since the start of the pandemic, especially in applying for food assistance at the CalFresh Help Clinic, a service provided to SF State students and staff to assist with the tough application process.  

“We’re there to help students sift through the jargon and actually get benefits,” she said, “because what students realize is, they can apply for CalFresh on their own and not have to go through SF State, but they don’t end up getting the benefits because they weren’t able to get the documentation or articulate their need in the right way.” 

Gardner ran some numbers on CalFresh applications through the help clinic right when the pandemic hit and discovered that there was a 205% increase in April 2020 applications compared to the year prior, which “really showed us that, for one, students were in significant need and two, that they trusted and relied on the university to be a point of access to gain basic needs security.” 

She acknowledged that insecurity is nothing new to the SF State community and has been an ongoing issue across higher education instituations. As she sees it, the pandemic highlighted the needs that were already present among student populations the only difference in a post-pandemic world is that many students had been cut off from the resources their campuses offered to remedy their struggles.  

She is grateful that campus leadership has had a dedication to addressing needs issues over the past three years, which allowed the Basic Needs Initiative to have a robust response to increased food and housing insecurity brought on by the pandemic. This preparedness allowed Gator Groceries to shut for just two weeks before reopening with their modified distribution method 

Before the pandemic, Food+Shelter+Success had advertised the CalFresh program to students at Gator Groceries and the weekly farmers market, informing that they were welcome to drop in if they ever found themselves struggling with the application for benefits.   

When the campus shut down, the HPW team sat down and strategized how they would reach the most students in a virtual space. “Making sure students know about us is half the battle,” she expresses, “and we try to be really diverse in how we deliver information to students.”  

The HPW team already ran an Instagram page, @sfstatecares, with over 3,000 followers, as well as Twitter and Facebook pages. But finding an adequate substitution for in-person workshops, support spaces and the help clinic seemed it would present more challenges than solutions. Tapping into virtual health promotion spaces almost felt counterintuitive to promoting health. But after mindful conversations, the team found that taking a different approach to online modalities was key. A combination of synchronous and asynchronous programming and open virtual spaces to play games and have a laugh and feel the sense of community was the best way to combat the usual shortfalls of online meetings. In addition, HPW created a podcast, blog and YouTube videos discussing how to best care for themselves and each other during the pandemic, as well as to continue advertisement of help programs.   

“We’ve seen an exponential increase in students attending our virtual workshops and programming,” Gardner says, happy that the online CalFresh Help Clinic and other HPW programs are working well for students who may have not had access prior to the pandemic.  Addressing the needs among students during the campus closure and beyond is especially beneficial to underserved student communities that rely more on the institution for resources. “Food and housing instability cannot be the reason these students have doors in their future closed that they worked so hard to open,” Gardner says.  

Food and housing instability cannot be the reason these students have doors in their future closed that they worked so hard to open.

— Jewlee Gardner, assistant director for Health Promotion & Wellness

Part of it we attribute to the fact that SF State is a commuter campus. Students might not have had the ability to physically participate in programs in person. Now, they can tap in from their home or wherever they are, anytime.”  

An important aspect of ensuring graduation and retention in a time when basic needs insecurity is at a peak is accessibility to programs like HPW’s CalFresh Help Clinic and other basic needs solutionsGardner expressed that the ultimate goal of HPW is to make sure that the reason a student leaves SF State is not because they didn’t have stable access to basic human rights like food and shelter. 

These are your programs; you pay to go to this college so you might as well leverage and access them,” she said, “and we’ve had a lot of successes. So many students graduated this past year who ran through Food+Shelter+Success or got CalFresh, and we attribute that to helping them stabilize their basic needs circumstances so they can focus on the things that are really important to complete their academic career.” 

As for Jules Kutner, she agrees that CalFresh and other programs to help with basic needs should always be accessible not only for those who are struggling during the pandemic, but for any student that questions where their next meal may come from.  

“Having my life benefit so greatly just from getting a couple hundred bucks a month for food… I’m sort of on this crusade of like… everyone sign up for it if you need it. Even if you aren’t sure if you need it, don’t be afraid to ask for these things.”