Food aid concerns at colleges | Connecticut & Region

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Local community college officials are concerned about how a proposed rule change to tighten eligibility requirements for federal food assistance might impact a scholarship program for students who receive such assistance.

Officials say the proposed change, announced recently by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, could render some students ineligible for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, Employment and Training Program, which they say is a pathway out of poverty and federal assistance for many.

Last week, the USDA proposed closing a “loophole” that allows states to make participants receiving minimal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF, benefits automatically eligible to participate in the SNAP program, formerly known as “food stamps.”

In a release issued last week, the USDA argued that the automatic eligibility has opened up the SNAP program to abuse by those who “clearly don’t need it,” giving an example of a Minnesota millionaire who enrolled in the SNAP program to highlight the “waste of taxpayer money.”

Proponents of the existing eligibility requirements argue that expanded eligibility captures many who do need the benefits, and also helps struggling families focus on other expenses and even build savings before removal from the SNAP program.

Officials at Asnuntuck Community College in Enfield and Manchester Community College expressed concern last week over how the proposed change might affect the SNAP Employment and Training program, a program in which those receiving SNAP benefits can receive scholarships to complete short-term certificate programs in high-need fields that offer decent wages.

The programs offer training in a variety of fields, that, based on Department of Labor statistics, lead to good job placement. The program trains students for such careers as certified nurse aide, pharmacy or phlebotomy technicians, office workers, or computer repair and maintenance workers.

Gina Marchesani, SNAP coordinator at MCC, said the program is helpful in removing the “financial barriers” between people and education, and between people and a decent job.

Marchesani said a lot of the program’s participants are single mothers who are trying to become financially independent, or 18 to 22 year olds who want to help out their families.

“Without this scholarship, you’re really taking away education and what they need to get off food stamps,” she said.

According to information provided by MCC, 45 students at the college have received SNAP scholarships since September, and the program has an 84 percent completion rate. Marchesani said the college currently has 30 completed scholarship applications for students looking to begin the program in the fall.

How many people will be affected by the proposed change is unclear.

Eileen Peltier, dean of workforce development and continuing education at Asnuntuck, said recently that her contacts at the state Social Services Department are “still looking into it.”

Peltier said that because the proposed change relates to TANF recipients and because those who receive cash assistance from TANF aren’t eligible for the SNAP scholarship, she said she’s “hopeful” SNAP scholarship students wouldn’t be affected.

Peltier said that if the change does affect scholarship recipients, it would have a negative impact on a program that helps people improve their lives.

“I really believe education is the only vehicle for upward mobility in this country,” she said. “Pulling this is not the way to go.”

In a letter issued last week to Agriculture Department Secretary Sonny Perdue, Connecticut State Colleges and Universities President Mark Ojakian urged the secretary to reverse the “shortsighted” decision, noting the growing problem of food insecurity on CSCU campuses, particularly at the community colleges, where many students are the first in their family to attend college, and nearly half are eligible for full Pell grant funding.

To address the issue of food insecurity, many campuses have implemented food pantries, which are reportedly well utilized by students. At Asnuntuck, Peltier said 350 students utilize the food pantry on campus each week.

According to the USDA, some 3.1 million SNAP participants would be affected by the proposed change, and state officials estimate 11,000 Connecticut residents would be affected.

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