Connecting Community College Students to SNAP Benefits: Lessons learned from a pilot outreach intervention in California

Connecting Community College Students to SNAP Benefits: Lessons learned from a pilot outreach intervention in California

March 2022

Before the pandemic, millions of college students eligible for the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP) did not access the benefit. This gap between eligibility for SNAP benefits and the use of those benefits is often a result of confusion around federal eligibility requirements. Even when eligibility guidelines were temporarily changed to include new exemptions during the pandemic to make it easier for more students to access SNAP, many had no idea they were now eligible to receive benefits. This has serious implications for students’ lives as food insecurity can influence their well-being and academic success.

College staff around the country are working diligently to inform students of these changes and connect them to SNAP benefits. California in particular has made significant strides in expanding eligibility and access to public support programs to reduce basic needs insecurity among college students. For instance, colleges in California have used additional state funding to conduct outreach to students about SNAP benefits, known locally as CalFresh. Yet, there remains a gap between students experiencing food insecurity and those using food supports like CalFresh. The pandemic has shown that traditional approaches to college outreach, such as the use of flyers, posters, and word-of-mouth, are no longer effective strategies when fewer students are on campus.

With support from the Michelson 20MM Foundation, The Hope Center partnered with Compton College to pilot a low-cost intervention that used text-based nudging to provide timely and relevant information about CalFresh. During the fall of 2021, we identified 1,539 Compton College students who may be eligible for CalFresh. Approximately one-third of these students received empowering and stigma-reducing, or “attuned,” text messages about CalFresh benefits. Another one-third received texts with basic information on how to sign-up for these benefits. A sub-sample of students was surveyed to assess their experiences with food insecurity, use of public and campus benefits, and impressions of the text messages.

In this brief, we share lessons from the pilot intervention at Compton College. In addition, we review findings from focus groups with other community college students throughout California and meetings with community organizations that help connect students to SNAP benefits. Practitioners should consider these lessons when conducting outreach to students about SNAP and similar benefits.