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A food subsidy many college students relied on is ending with the pandemic emergency

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

In this country, many college students - they don't have enough to eat. To help, an emergency food subsidy was put in place during the pandemic. But in most states, it's set to expire next month. So some students worry they can't make up the difference. NPR's Katia Riddle reports from Portland, Ore.

KATIA RIDDLE, BYLINE: As a high school student, Brian Montes didn't think college was in the cards for him. He wanted to go, but he didn't see a path.

BRIAN MONTES: I'm a person of color. I'm brown. I am the son of undocumented immigrants. I am a first-generation American, first-generation student. I also identify - like, I'm openly gay. I also - low income.

RIDDLE: Montes decided to try anyway. He started college at Portland State University in the early months of the pandemic. Financially, he's on his own.

MONTES: Point nine-one pounds.

RIDDLE: He puts two zucchini on a scale at the grocery store. He's checking out.

MONTES: So that was 1.52.

RIDDLE: One thing that's helped him get by these last few years is a federal food benefit called SNAP.

MONTES: Total on SNAP was about $20.15.

RIDDLE: SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program - Montes used it on this day to buy the squash, a can of minestrone soup, a container of hummus and some granola bars. He glances down at his receipt.

MONTES: First thing I always do immediately after - check how much.

RIDDLE: How much you spent?

MONTES: How much I have left.

RIDDLE: SNAP helps more than 40 million people across the country buy food. When COVID hit, the federal government increased the benefit and expanded eligibility. College students like Montes benefited from this pandemic safety net. It's set to expire at the end of February. Currently, he gets close to $250 a month.

MONTES: I'm going to be completely honest. I am really terrified.

RIDDLE: Montes could see that drop to less than $100 a month.

MONTES: I'm doing well enough right now, in the sense that through the help that I'm getting and my jobs that I have, I'm surviving.

RIDDLE: Recently, at least 100 students a day have been visiting a food pantry at Portland State University. Trenna Wilson is the manager there. She says given higher food prices, students are already struggling.

TRENNA WILSON: Sometimes this is the first time they've experienced that.

RIDDLE: Wilson gestures to shelves of beans and rice, ready-made soup. She anticipates demand will increase once the SNAP benefit expires.

WILSON: And they feel really ashamed. They feel that they've done something wrong.

RIDDLE: Can you see that in their body language when they come in?

WILSON: We can. We've had more than one instance of tears.

SUZANNE BONAMICI: Yeah, I'm really concerned about it.

RIDDLE: Suzanne Bonamici is a Democratic congresswoman in Oregon. She recently proposed legislation that would require colleges to let students know when they qualify for SNAP. She has personal experience with the issue.

BONAMICI: When I was a community college student years ago, if I had not had - was then called food stamps, I would have been really hungry.

RIDDLE: But there's no solution on the horizon for students like Brian Montes at Portland State University. He's now in his third year of college, double majoring in political science and social science.

MONTES: I love who I am because of who I am.

RIDDLE: He's changed his mind about that list of qualities he used to think of as liabilities - gay, Latino, low-income, first in his family to go to college.

MONTES: I do think about that, but on the flip side in that, wow, I really got myself here. Wow, I'm really doing this. I have found a lot of self-worth in that.

RIDDLE: He says he might not have discovered this new version of himself if he were busy worrying about having enough to eat.

For NPR News, I'm Katia Riddle in Portland, Ore.

(SOUNDBITE OF FRESH AYER SONG, "DON'T YOU EVER FORGET THAT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Katia Riddle
[Copyright 2024 NPR]