a smiling college student holding canned goods
Story Basic Needs Initiative

A Fresh Approach to Supporting Student Wellness

Alisia Ruble

CSU CalFresh Outreach Weeks highlight the myriad ways the university addresses students’ basic needs.

a smiling college student holding canned goods

​Photo ​courtesy of Jason Halley/Chico State

This February, the CSU’s 23 universities hosted multiple outreach events to raise awareness for the government nutrition assistance program CalFresh and help students navigate the process of applying for benefits. The program is the California adaptation of the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and provides eligible individuals with free money to spend on groceries and meals.

Each of the campuses leads their own outreach events with support from the Center for Healthy Communities at Chico State (CHC) and the CSU Office of the Chancellor. In 2023, CalFresh Outreach Week expanded to include a week-long celebration of events in the fall term.

CSU Basic Needs Initiative​ teams, including campus staff and student leaders, organize informative webinars and Q&A sessions about CalFresh benefits, hold virtual and in-person appointments to screen students for eligibility and offer help submitting applications. They also host activities on social media to dispel myths about benefits and reduce stigma surrounding seeking assistance. 

For example, Sacramento State held cooking demonstrations using items individuals can purchase with their CalFresh benefits, CSU Channel Islands hosted a CalFresh farmers market and raffles, and San Diego State implemented a social media CalFresh enrollment campaign using posts, stories and reels to highlight information and resources related to the program.

In addition to providing CalFresh outreach and application assistance, CSU campuses now accept, or are working toward accepting, Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) to be used to purchase food on campus.​

Elevating Outreach

To recognize its leadership as content experts in CalFresh outreach, California Governor Gavin Newsom awarded the CHC a renewal of $3 million in funding in the 2022-23 state budget to continue supporting college students across California.

Its efforts brought an estimated economic impact of nearly $100 million to the state last year, according to the USDA SNAP Multiplier Effect. The CHC partners with all 149 California public college campuses and higher education basic needs leaders to uplift and expand food benefit application assistance, which strengthens regional and state economies.
Since receiving initial state funding in 2021, the CHC has been able to elevate its work, including the development of the CalFresh Outreach (CFO) Resource Hub. The hub provides best practices, live help desk support to campuses and assistance in implementing legislation.

Thanks in part to systemwide outreach efforts, nearly 23,000 students received assistance with CalFresh applications during the 2022-23 academic year.

Elevating CalFresh outreach was an overarching theme at the California Higher Education Basic Needs Alliance (CHEBNA) Summit held February 21-22, 2024, which brought together nearly 900 individuals who are working on basic needs throughout the state.

CHEBNA was established in 2016 by members of all three of California’s public higher education segments—the CSU, University of California and the California Community Colleges—to inform basic needs interventions, research and assessment, as well as to inform policy shaping best practices.

One of the key goals in conducting CalFresh outreach, says Emily Kass, systemwide manager for the CSU Basic Needs Initiative, is to help students understand the eligibility requirements, because many who are eligible think they are not. She says it’s also important to combat the stigma around applying for CalFresh.

“A student is not defined by whether or not they are experiencing food or housing insecurity—ultimately they're defined by being a student and a human, and basic needs are human rights,” Kass says. “It’s our job to figure out how we support students as an institution with these resources in order to promote their well-being as a student.”

Learn more about CalFresh eligibility and how to sign up by watching a tutorial from Cal State East Bay's Pioneers for H.O.P.E.


Fresh Food for Free

Supporting student wellness and basic needs is a key priority of the CSU’s Graduation Initiative 2025. Through the initiative, the university has made a number of resources, programs and services available to students to support them on their path to graduation. In addition to CalFresh outreach and education, the CSU has established a food pantry or food distribution program at each of its 23 universities. 

These food distribution programs continue to grow each year to meet students’ needs, especially after the COVID-19 pandemic impacted them and their families. CSU Monterey Bay Basic Needs​ coordinator Robyn DoCanto says the number of visits to its food pantry, The Hub, has nearly doubled over the last two semesters. 

“We are serving 39% of the student population,” DoCanto says. “We’re feeding anyone on campus who needs it.”

The Hub at CSUMB is the nerve center for the university’s basic needs program. Located in the Student Center, it offers a variety of nonperishable grocery items, produce, grab-and-go snacks and prepared food. Students can also apply for CalFresh assistance, receive farmers market vouchers and get information about nutrition, housing and financial support programs. 

There is also a thrift shop section where students can find or donate clothing, and a food truck visits the Hub once every two weeks, providing students with free fruits and vegetables. 

Cal State Fullerton recently opened the ASI Food Pantry—a 1,400-foot space in the campus’s Titan Student Union that is twice the size of its original food pantry. The Pantry’s partners include the Second Harvest Food Bank of Orange County, grocery stores like Ralphs and Sam’s Club, and CSUF Basic Needs Services.

Campus gardens and farms across the CSU also help address basic needs by providing fresh produce for students.

CSUF, for example, partners with the Fullerton Arboretum and the CSUF Campus Garden to provide thousands of pounds of fresh produce for The Pantry. Since opening its first location in August 2021, more than 3,300 students have accessed The Pantry, which has received more than 2,800 pounds of fresh fruit from the arboretum since the partnership started in early 2022.

CSUF senior Jade Fonseca, who volunteers at the arboretum, knows firsthand the benefits of having a campus food pantry with fresh-picked produce. In the past, she turned to The Pantry to help her with weekly groceries and learned about other resources that help students, such as food assistance programs and local food banks.

“I work a minimum wage job. I have to pay rent, bills and school expenses,” says Fonseca. “I don’t always have a lot of extra money for food. Thankfully, The Pantry has helped provide me with the food I needed.”

Halting Homelessness

In addition to ensuring students have enough to eat, CSU campuses have expanded emergency assistance for students facing housing insecurity. Each of the 23 universities provides housing support to housing insecure or unhoused students through emergency on and off campus placements and emergency grants to support housing expenses.

Eight campuses, including Chico State, have participated in the College-Focused Rapid Rehousing program since 2019, and they are collaborating with community-based organizations to assist with longer-term housing solutions. The CSU has awarded the participating campuses $220,000 each year through the program to support their efforts.

Working together with regional nonprofits Chico Housing Action Team (CHAT) and the True North Housing Alliance, as well as local property management companies, Chico State Basic Needs​​ provides students with transitional and permanent housing, as well as the rental assistance grants necessary to secure housing or prevent the imminent loss of housing.

For Chico State senior Kourtne Garrison, going to college and living in the dorms was supposed to be an escape from a tumultuous household. But when the pandemic hit in 2020, it forced her back home, where “everything came crashing down,” she says.

Garrison’s father kicked her out of their Sacramento home, leaving her with nowhere to go. When she was allowed to return, “I walked on eggshells. I feared for my safety, so that’s when I got in touch with Basic Needs.”

“My grades really slipped in that time, and I was in a bad mental state of mind,” the public health major says.

Her call to Chico State Basic Needs provided a bridge to a new start. A first-generation college student and an immigrant from Jamaica, Garrison has lived in a CHAT house since she left her father’s house during her sophomore year.

“It took a load off my shoulders—I have a place to go to, I have a bed to lie in, and I don’t have to worry,” Garrison says. “[Rapid Re-housing] gave me the opportunity to focus on my academics and my future.”

Learn more about CSU efforts to address student wellness on the Basic Needs Initiative website.
Graduation Initiative