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New Research: Over 240,000 UC and Community College Students Received CalFresh Benefits During Each Year of the Pandemic

Berkeley, April 22nd — The nonpartisan California Policy Lab released two data points today, showing the number of California college students who were enrolled in the CalFresh program during the 2020-21 and 2021-22 academic years, the first two years of the COVID-19 pandemic. Participation estimates are broken down among demographic groups, UC campuses, community college regions, and financial aid status.

“CalFresh benefits can help students cover their basic living expenses, but historically it was unclear how many students were benefiting from the program,” 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. “We’re grateful to our partners for helping make this data available and we believe these research insights will help to better understand participation trends and to evaluate strategies to make CalFresh more accessible.”

While these two data points focus on the number of students participating in CalFresh, a forthcoming CPL report will estimate how many students are likely eligible to participate in CalFresh, and of that group, how many are actually enrolled in the program. CPL is holding a short webinar in June to share the findings from that report, people who would like to receive a webinar invite and the new report when it’s released can sign up here. Previous research by CPL and several partners show that outreach to likely eligible students during the pandemic led to increased program participation.

This research is made possible through a research partnership between the California Policy Lab (CPL), the California Community College system (CCC), the University of California Office of the President (UCOP), the California Department of Social Services (CDSS), and the California Student Aid Commission (CSAC) to create a linked database of student-level administrative data on college enrollment, financial aid, and CalFresh participation.

Table 1. CalFresh participation rates among college students, academic years (AY) 2020-21 and 2021-22
note: the publication page has an interactive table that can be filtered by system, CC region, UC campus, and various subgroups.

Academic Year 2020-21 Academic Year 2021-22
California Community College Students 10.6%
(about 206,000 students)
(about 198,000 students)
University of California Undergraduates 12.3%
(about 29,000 students)
(about 36,000 students)
University of California Graduate Students 6.3%
(about 4,000 students)
(about 6,000 students)

Key Findings on CalFresh Participation in Academic Years 2020-21 and 2021-22

  • The share of California Community College (CCC) students participating in CalFresh remained consistent between the first two years of the pandemic. Participation among UC undergraduate and graduate students increased in 2021-22, continuing its pre-pandemic trend (see Table 1).
  • The Central Valley, Northern California, and Inland Empire Community College regions had the highest student CalFresh enrollment rates.
  • UC San Francisco – which enrolls only graduate students – had the highest rate of CalFresh enrollment among the UC campuses (33.1% in 2020-21, and 32.1% in 2021-22).
  • The highest rates of CalFresh enrollment among UC undergraduates were at UC Merced (20.8% and 21.9% in AY 2020-21 and 2021-22, respectively), UC Santa Barbara (18.2% and 22.1%) and UC Davis (14.8% and 16.0%).
  • CalFresh enrollment varies considerably across age groups within the CCC student population, which includes many non-traditional and returning students. Participation rates were highest among 30 to 39-year-olds, and lowest among students in their early 20s.
  • Among CCC students, the CalFresh participation rate was highest among historically marginalized groups, including Black/African American and American Indian/Alaska Native students. Among UC undergraduate students, participation increased among all racial and ethnic groups in AY 2021-22 as compared to AY 2020-21, particularly among Hispanic/Latino/Chicano (3.9 percentage point increase) and Asian American/Asian/Pacific Islander students (2.4 p.p. increase).

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

The Student Supports Project is made possible through support from the Spencer Foundation. This research is also supported by the Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education, through Grant R305A220451 to The Regents of the University of California – Berkeley. The opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not represent views of the Institute or the U.S. Department of Education.


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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