As Sarah Bauer navigated her undergraduate career at UC Berkeley and then followed her passion to Berkeley Law, she noticed an unfortunate, common issue plaguing her peers – food insecurity, or a lack of access to healthy food.
“I saw, firsthand, my peers facing food insecurity and how this affected their experience in school in a time where we should be doing things for ourselves,” said Sarah.
The numbers bear out Sarah’s observation. A 2017 study found that 44% of undergraduate students and 26% of graduate students in the UC system experience food insecurity. As a response to the growing need, UC Berkeley’s Basic Needs Center has increased its efforts to encourage Cal students to apply for CalFresh, a benefits program that provides low- income individuals with financial assistance to purchase nutritional food.
Still, it is not always so clear-cut for students to successfully access this crucial benefit. Out of a desire to help their peers navigate the complex benefits application process, Berkeley Law students founded the Food Justice Project (FJP) in 2018.
“Students have their own sphere,” said Samson Lim, a second-year student at Berkeley Law who has been helping his classmates access CalFresh through EBCLC’s Food Justice Project. “It becomes tricky for students to determine how to fill out an application if their household situations differ from a more common family situation, as it does for most college students. For example, some live in cooperative housing with dozens of other people and cook shared meals, others live with roommates.”
These situations leave room for mistakes that result in the denial of college students’ CalFresh applications– and make it more likely that they will be denied benefits they are entitled to through no fault of their own.
“A student came in with a denial letter, who seemed to be eligible for CalFresh,” said Sarah, who leads the Food Justice Project along with Samson. “We went through the process, and in the middle of the conversation with our supervising attorney, Erin Le, we realized there might be something wrong. We double-checked, and online their application for CalFresh was approved. A miscommunication caused them to get a denial letter even though they were approved.”
Mistakes like these cause students to go through their days food insecure. One of the problems is that there aren’t the best resources to help students figure out what steps to follow once they are denied the benefits. Samson and Sarah were compelled to seek a way to intervene.
“Most students do not know that they have the right to appeal a denial from CalFresh,” said Samson. “The Food Justice Project fills in that gap in the system.”
Food Justice Project Team, Fall 2019
The Food Justice Project (FJP) is a Student-initiated Legal Services Project (SLP) and is part of the Berkeley Law Pro Bono Program. This year, the project is co-led by Sarah and Samson, who joined FJP as members during their first year in law school.
The project was created in 2018 when EBCLC’s Health and Welfare Clinic Director, Erin Le, agreed to be the supervising attorney for the project. FJP began hosting clinics in EBCLC’s University Office to create a space where UC Berkeley students could get help decoding their CalFresh materials or determining if they were eligible to appeal a denial.
FJP has now expanded to a team of 16 law students and has moved to the Basic Needs Center on campus, where three clinics were hosted this fall semester.
“We want people to know they have options and rights when it comes to CalFresh,” said Sarah. “That is what the clinics are for.”
When an appeal is possible, it can take weeks or months for a final decision to be made. Students might be invited for an interview to get more information on the case. The last step of the appeal is a hearing. Although the vast majority of appeals are resolved before a hearing, FJP is there to support students every step of the way.
“FJP also helps students get retroactive benefits. This means they are able to receive all the benefits that belonged to them during the time their application was denied,” said Samson.
Food insecurity disproportionately affects students of color and low-income students. When you do not have access to healthy food, you learn to skip meals or eat less. Consequently, students who face food insecurity are likely to experience low energy levels and even feel negative mental health effects. These symptoms disrupt their academic work leading to lower grades and graduation rates.
Currently, the FJP team is researching ways to tackle the issue through policy as well. One of the goals is to ease communication between students and the County in order to decrease preventable errors with CalFresh. They are also working on other projects to improve students’ access to food.
“I was drawn to FJP because of the ways food insecurity can impact college success. Students should be able to not just survive but thrive in college. With FJP, we are seeking ways to create an environment where students can survive,” said Samson.