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New Report Finds the Majority of California College Students Who Are Eligible for CalFresh Benefits Don’t Participate

Berkeley, June 4, 2024 – The nonpartisan California Policy Lab (CPL) released a report today that estimates the number of University of California (UC) and California Community College (CCC) students who are potentially eligible to receive CalFresh benefits, and of that group, how many students received CalFresh benefits in the Fall of 2019. CalFresh benefits can reduce hunger by helping students pay for their groceries, but the program may not reach all eligible students. This report is the first of its kind to link college enrollment and financial aid application data and then compare it to CalFresh eligibility rules in order to create more precise estimates of how many students are likely eligible for CalFresh.

The researchers calculated that in the Fall of 2019, 16% of all CCC students were likely eligible for CalFresh, compared to 31% of UC undergraduate students, and 6% of UC graduate students. The lower eligibility rate for community college students is largely due to more of these students living with their parents – which makes them less likely to qualify.

Among students who were estimated to be eligible, 30% of community college students received CalFresh benefits in the Fall of 2019, as compared to 22% of UC undergraduate students, and 29% of UC graduate students. This means about 93,000 students received CalFresh benefits, but also that an estimated 235,000 eligible students missed out on benefits that could have paid for their food. The report provides eligibility and participation estimates for each UC campus and the seven California Community College regions, and breakdowns by demographics, financial aid status, and student types.

“We are grateful to our partners for joining us in this research. It enabled us to generate the first estimates of just how many California college students are eligible for and participating in CalFresh,” explains co-author Jesse Rothstein, Carmel P. Friesen Professor of Public Policy and Economics at UC Berkeley and the faculty director of the California Policy Lab’s UC Berkeley site. “Depending on which system you’re looking at, we found that only about one in three or one in four eligible students are receiving CalFresh benefits. That’s a significant take-up gap, and our goal is that this research will help our partners and policymakers in their work to close that gap.”

The research team also pinpointed eligibility criteria and program rules that appear to have the biggest impact in determining if a student is eligible. The research found that housing status is a key component of student CalFresh eligibility, because eligibility is based on the total incomes of people living and preparing meals together. A smaller share of CCC students are eligible for CalFresh than UC undergraduate students because more CCC students live with their parents. Another contributing factor to the UC-CCC difference is the Cal Grant college scholarship. The version of the Cal Grant given to UC students qualifies many of them for CalFresh eligibility, but the version given to CCC students does not.

“Everyone is impacted by California’s high cost of living and inflation, including college students,” adds Shawn Brick, Associate Vice Provost for Student Financial Support at the UC Office of the President. “Seeing how many eligible students are benefiting from CalFresh on each U.C. campus, and how many are missing out, can inform our efforts to better connect students with this critical resource.”

“Students shouldn’t have to worry about whether or not they can afford their next meal,” explains Genie Kim, Director of Student Mental Health and Well-being at the UC Office of the President. “These estimates show that we have a lot of work to do in order to improve access and connect more eligible students to CalFresh benefits.”

“This research makes it clear that many more low-income Californians could benefit from CalFresh while they’re enrolled at California Community Colleges,” comments Valerie Lundy-Wagner, Vice Chancellor of Digital Innovation and Infrastructure at the California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office, who oversees the system’s research agenda. “This research partnership is building and accelerating the evidence-base for strategies to make that happen.”

“CalFresh benefits can play an important role in helping California college students to afford their basic needs,” adds Andrea Brayboy, CalFresh & Nutrition Branch Chief at the California Department of Social Services. “This research provides an opportunity to better understand and address the challenges students face in participating in CalFresh, while supporting the Department’s commitment to explore solutions that increase program access in the state.”

Background on CalFresh
CalFresh is California’s version of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), also commonly known as Food Stamps. In recent years, California has worked to help more eligible students receive CalFresh (for example, by funding Basic Needs Centers that help students to sign up for CalFresh), but these efforts have been hampered by a lack of understanding about how many students are eligible, and of that group, how many participate. College students also face a unique set of eligibility rules that advocates suggest may deter students from applying or continuing to participate in CalFresh.

To conduct this research, the California Policy Lab (CPL) partnered with the California Community College (CCC) Chancellor’s Office, the University of California Office of the President (UCOP), the California Department of Social Services (CDSS), and the California Student Aid Commission (CSAC) to build the first-ever linked database of student-level administrative data on college enrollment, financial aid, and CalFresh participation. The report includes in-depth explanations of the methodology used to create the estimates and limitations with the research.

For more information about CPL’s Student Supports project, please see this overview.


The California Policy Lab generates research insights for government impact. Through hands-on partnerships with government agencies, CPL performs rigorous research across issue silos and builds the data infrastructure necessary to improve programs and policies that millions of Californians rely on every day.

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