Reimagining SNAP Benefits for College Students

Recently, there have been many stories focused on the large number of college students who struggle with food insecurity. In 2018, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) reported that more than 30% of college students lack adequate access to food and 4 in 10 potentially eligible students were not receiving SNAP benefits.

Soon, SNAP eligibility rules will become more stringent. In December, NPR published an article detailing how many low-income students will lose access to SNAP benefits as a result of tightened work requirements.

What factors are keeping so many eligible college students from accessing SNAP benefits?

Our commitment to being the most human-centered creative problem-solver in the social technology sector means integrating human-centered design into all facets of our work, including our research methods. In 2019, members of our Strategy and Innovation team wanted to find out how Alluma might connect college students struggling to meet their basic needs to services that could help. Our goal during this field discovery? To identify and define the underlying challenges and barriers and use them to inform our long-term strategies in tackling this problem.

The team began by conducting secondary research on the problem to better understand the issues and identify experts working on them. But in order to dig deeper, to go beyond desktop research, speaking to real people dealing with this issue was imperative. Team members met with a range of program administrators, staff, and students at CSU & UC schools throughout California to learn about their experiences firsthand and understand the current “customer” journey of how students seek and find food assistance and where gaps exist in the process.

It was clear that the problem had many layers, leading to the creation of one overarching How Might We (HMW) statement — which evolved into multiple HMW statements the team could take meaningful action on, such as:

  • HMW equip transfer students with tools and resources before they get to a 4-year college so they can “hit the ground running”?
  • HMW leverage FAFSA applications to provide linkages, and eligibility/enrollment, to safety net programs?
  • HMW help students actually complete their CalFresh applications? HMW ensure that more students are aware of, and get access to, a broader set of non-academic support systems?
  • HMW better streamline and personalize the process for students?

Ideating from those HMW statements, the team identified potential ways to address the gaps or barriers they found. For example, perhaps students could get better connected with food assistance by:

  • Working with others to help address the stigma associated with asking for help;
  • Using existing technology tools to more easily find food pantries or applying for CalFresh and other programs;
  • Using data they provided to their schools to automatically apply for programs like CalFresh or Medi-Cal.

By delving into what students actually face when seeking food assistance, our team discovered a multi-pronged approach was needed to solve the problem and no single idea would support students in need of assistance. The team also discovered a community of like-minded individuals whose work we could continue to build on.

It’s critical to understand the real-world complexity and challenges of the people we serve, so we can create solutions that really work for them. This approach allows us to design what people really need, and to make our tools adaptable to the context in which it is used.