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We need to extend help to college students

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Niasia Starling dreamed of becoming a lawyer.

But as a new student at Nassau Community College in 2018, her dream felt more like a fantasy as she laid awake in a homeless shelter wondering where she would find her next meal.

Niasia sought help from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which gave her the stability she needed to graduate with a degree in liberal arts and social science.

Even before the coronavirus pandemic caused increased economic hardship for New Yorkers, many college students and their families were struggling to afford food. A 2019 survey of 86,000 college students by The Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice found more than 60% had experienced food insecurity within the last 30 days.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has enacted policies that have expanded access to healthy food for in-need college students. Under his No Student Goes Hungry Initiative, the State University of New York and the City University of New York established stigma-free food pantries on or near every campus. Those pantries experienced more than 300,000 visits in 2019.

His most recent directive, done this month in partnership with SUNY, CUNY, and the Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance, shatters a barrier to SNAP for roughly 75,000 students. People enrolled at least half time in career and technical education programs through SUNY or CUNY no longer need to fulfill a separate, 20-hour-a-week work requirement to qualify for SNAP benefits. This extends to students in similar programs at 10 Educational Opportunity Centers throughout New York.

This policy shift gives more people easier access to the essentials they need to tap into their full potential. And that benefits all of us. Career and technical education programs are made up of future firefighters, paramedics, and community and mental health workers. They will one day manage construction sites, heat our homes, look after our children at day care centers, and work in clean energy.

Over time, SNAP has helped clear the path to upward mobility for countless students who are now giving back.

People like Borough of Manhattan Community College student Tiffany Penton, who is raising two boys while studying community health. When coronavirus hit, Tiffany and her husband lost their jobs. SNAP helped feed the family and kept Tiffany’s career plans on track.

Serina Brown says hunger was a "persistent problem" in her early days as a single mother of three. Today, the SUNY Brockport graduate is helping people in similarly challenging circumstances as a coordinator for the Rochester SNAP Employment and Training grant program.

CUNY student, mother of three, and SNAP recipient Roshell Powdar may still be in school, but she’s already giving back through her nonprofit Pink Lilly Inc., which helps single mothers and young women.

SNAP gave Navy veteran Thomas Barrack a second chance after a battle with addiction landed him in a coma. Throughout a challenging rehabilitation, Thomas always had access to a healthy meal. Today, he holds a 4.0 GPA at Onondaga Community College.

Making SNAP more accessible to our most economically vulnerable students will undoubtedly give rise to more of these stories. Undeterred by hunger and financial anxiety, SUNY and CUNY students will be able to change the course of their lives, and in the process, breathe life and love into our communities.

Jim Malatras is the chancellor of SUNY. Félix V. Matos Rodríguez is the chancellor of CUNY.

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