Before the financial aid office at UC San Francisco suggested it student Hailey Juszczak said it had never occurred to her to apply for CalFresh food assistance.
“I had no idea (about the program),” said the 25-year-old, second-year medical student, whose only source of income is student loans.
Doctors and dentists are often thought of as high-income earners – once they graduate. But to get there, most students need to take out a crushing amount of debt, which leaves some at risk for food insecurity.
UCSF and the SF-Marin Food Bank recently partnered to help guide students through the sometimes-complicated CalFresh application process. Formerly known as food stamps, CalFresh provides beneficiaries with $192 each month to spend on approved food items.
Approximately 50,000 San Franciscians receive CalFresh, but the San Francisco Human Services Agency estimates that among traditional college age students, less than 30 percent of those eligible have applied.
They want to increase that number.
“Census data suggests about 11,700 San Francisco residents between the ages of 18 and 24 are eligible for CalFresh. Of these, about 3,100 are enrolled,” said Chandra Johnson, an agency spokesperson.
Juszczak said the program had made a huge difference on her life.
“It’s been so helpful. It’s really given me flexibility in my month-to-month budget,” she said. “It allowed me to eat healthier in that I can go to grocery stores I want to go to, and buy more expensive food that may be a little healthier.”
The additional support helped her overcome financial guilt over spending more money on food that is partially prepared, such as frozen meals, she said. As a medical student, she often doesn’t have time to prepare an entirely home-cooked meal for herself.
“Sometimes the thought of preparing food for dinner is overwhelming,” she said. “Pre-sliced veggies I can throw right into the oven and have for dinner makes a huge difference when I’m so pressured for time as a medical student. It seems so small…but it saves me the stress of thinking it’s going to be a whole ordeal.”
Attending class, lectures, group discussion, and clinical days is a full-time job in and of itself, she said, let alone the additional time it takes to study. And there’s always more to study – you never finish, she said, you just run out of budgeted time.
Juszczak told her three roommates about the program, all of whom then applied and received assistance, too.
“I don’t think (the program) was advertised as well last year as it was this year,” Juszczak said. “This year, there has been a push to have people be more aware and eligible for this.”
“We really started getting the program going last January,” said Barbra Smith, a basic needs and food security coordinator at UCSF. “135 students at UCSF have become eligible through the connection we’ve made with the food bank and county workers.”
Smith said stigma has not been a primary factor keeping students from applying.
“Some students felt they might be taking it away from people who might need it more. That’s not the case – it’s underutilized,” she said. “They don’t need to give it up for someone else.”
“People have gotten away from hiding that they receive food stamps,” said Alece Alderson, another coordinator at UCSF. “Students are referring friends to us, and that’s amazing to see.”