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More Missouri college students face food insecurity after losing federal pandemic assistance

People walk on steps outdoors near several blue and yellow display posters on a college campus with slogans and faces.
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
People walk on the UMKC campus Wednesday afternoon.

During the pandemic, SNAP rules were relaxed so students weren’t required to participate in state or federally funded work programs such as work-study. Those temporary pandemic rules allowed 3 million more students to qualify for food stamps, but now many are no longer eligible.

When University of Missouri student Puna Neumeier finishes a day of classes, she can’t think about homework. Her pressing worries are getting food, paying rent and taking care of her mother, who is disabled.

“As a caretaker and daughter, I have to be in charge of getting the food, cooking the food, serving the food, as well as taking care of her,” she said.

Neumeier has a job, but making ends meet this year has been particularly tough because of inflation, she said. So she turned to a food pantry along with federal aid, which lightened her daily expenses.

With the possibility of losing food stamps, her family’s bandaged income and food security were in danger. Students reapplying for federal food assistance after July 1 might not be eligible.

During the pandemic, rules were relaxed so students weren’t required to participate in state or federally funded work programs such as work-study. Students who received no financial support from their families now qualified, too.

Those temporary pandemic rules allowed 3 million more students to qualify for food stamps.

Those students now have to find other ways to put food on the table.

The invisible struggle

Worrying about the next meal or skipping it altogether for lack of money have become unofficial benchmarks of the college experience for some.

It’s an invisible epidemic that affected 44.9% of Missouri college students in 2021, according to a Journal of Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics study. Almost half of students in Missouri lacked consistent access to enough food to live an active, healthy life, as defined by the USDA.

Additional older studies have reported student food insecurity rates in the U.S. ranging from 25% to 35%.

Food insecurity is also common in the general population. In 2021, Boone County had a food insecurity rate of 11%, which included more than 20,000 people.

“Food insecurity happens everywhere. It happens in every corner in every community and every county in Missouri,” said Kim Buckman, director of advocacy and communication at Feeding Missouri, a coalition of the six food banks in the state.

Many people are just one unplanned emergency away from not having enough money to buy food, Buckman said.

“You get a flat tire, and all of a sudden that took all your reserves.”

The effects of food insecurity among students range from low performance in school to health risks such as depression, stress and obesity tied to overconsumption of added sugar, fat and refined grains.

Although many students might need food assistance, most don’t get it. They’re unaware of the resources that can help them, or they are confused about the application process.

Students also don’t know where to go for help in a nonjudgmental setting since using federal benefits or food pantries is often stigmatized.

Feeding Missouri tries to make it easier for students to use the benefits “without feeling some kind of stigma associated with battling with food insecurity,” Buckman said.

Resources available to MU students include SNAP, or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program of food stamps; SNAP-Ed, which provides nutrition education; and Tiger Pantry, which provides emergency food to the wider campus community.

Addressing food insecurity

The central government program that helps Americans combat food insecurity is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, once commonly known as food stamps.

It uses a system like debit cards for eligible recipients to buy food from authorized stores. Last year, the federal program assisted more than 40 million people.

Approximately 1.4 million U.S. students received SNAP benefits in 2016, according to a Government Accountability Office report.

But this number doesn’t reflect how many students actually qualify to receive support. GAO reported that 57% of students qualified in 2016 but didn’t receive any SNAP benefits.

Single-family households making no more than $17,676 in gross income are potentially eligible for SNAP benefits. To qualify, students also must meet at least one of several criteria that include age, health, work, child care and other responsibilities.

Universities are trying to address the food security gap with educational programs and emergency food assistance. SNAP-Ed, implemented by MU Extension, delivers research-based nutrition education to SNAP recipients and others who are eligible in every Missouri county.

“We are working with the four UM System campuses, as well as all two- and four-year institutions across the state, to really make a concerted effort,” said Jo Britt-Rankin, extension professor and administrative director of SNAP-Ed.

Each UM System campus is investing in full-time positions — basic needs coordinators — who will be able to assist those who need SNAP benefits or other types of federal aid programs, Britt-Rankin said.

SNAP-Ed offers one-on-one sessions with students who need help filling out an application or figuring out if they’re eligible.

“Using that benefit says nothing about your worth as a person,” said Kimberly Keller, associate extension professor and evaluation coordinator for the program.

Britt-Rankin said a lot of awareness comes from word of mouth. It’s important to spread information about their programs through financial aid offices or student services, she said.

“There’s anxiety about the whole process, and then having someone who understands that can help you navigate it,” said Leslie Speller-Henderson, education programmer for the program.

Lack of awareness regarding eligibility and how to seek assistance can be a barrier for some students to receive benefits they deserve.

Gabriel Martinez, a graduate student at MU, received SNAP benefits when he was an undergraduate.

“Sometimes it was easy, like filling out an extra checkmark on student entry stuff. Sometimes it’s a matter of hunting down whatever you needed to find,” he said about his experience with applying for SNAP.

Now, as a doctoral student, he uses Tiger Pantry instead, which requires just a simple registration.

Alternatives to SNAP

Tiger Pantry, a Food Bank for Central and Northeast Missouri partner agency, is an on-campus resource in the Hitt Street parking garage that helps to combat food insecurity.

Most of the inventory comes from the Food Bank, in addition to food drives, public donations and local supermarkets. The pantry has received more than 4,500 pounds of food donations so far this year.

“The pantry is, I think, a very basic resource — basic, as in foundational for students to be able to succeed and not have to worry about things that would impede that,” said Lindsey Linkous, the pantry’s student director.

Opened in 2012, the pantry doesn’t have a screening process, and anyone in the MU community is qualified to use the services after registering.

In recent years, the number of pantry users has doubled, according to Tiger Pantry data. In 2020, an average of 128 households used the pantry monthly, compared to an average of 283 between January and July this year.

“Every semester, more and more people have come to the pantry,” she said.

The increase comes both from the promotion of the pantry and the need in the community, she said.

With about 35 volunteers per semester, the pantry is open three times a week during a regular semester.

There is also collaboration with Campus Dining Services for meal programs. Registered pantry patrons can request up to 12 meals per semester to be used at any all-you-can-eat dining hall on campus.

In addition to the pantry and meals, Tiger Pantry also has more than 20 locations for emergency food packs on campus with two to three microwavable meals and four to six types of snacks. The packs are intended for times when a student can’t access any of the pantries in Columbia.

The resource helps students devote their energies to school and extracurriculars instead of worrying about where their next meal is coming from, Linkous said.

As an MU student, Neumeier has been using the pantry on and off for the past couple of years. It is an important resource in her life, she said, helping her to concentrate on school and other responsibilities.

“It’s less having to worry, ‘How am I going to find the time to go to the grocery store?’ and more of, ‘I have this assignment due tonight,’” she said.

Despite the available support, students still might be uncomfortable at a food pantry. The grocery store pantry model, also referred to as client-choice mode, can be empowering and make it easier for people to ask for assistance, said Feeding Missouri’s Buckman.

“One of the biggest things, though, that I will say that we need to continue working on is overcoming the stigma associated with it,” she said. “Food insecurity can happen to anyone.”

This story was originally published by the Columbia Missourian.

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