UW-Madison starts accepting food stamps

The Flamingo Run convenience store at UW-Madison's Gordon Dining and Events Center is now accepting food stamp benefits for some food items. The store has had 26 transactions using the federal food assistance program so far this fall. 

AMBER ARNOLD, STATE JOURNAL

UW-Madison students who signed up for a federal food assistance program can now use their benefits at a campus convenience store to buy items like cold sandwiches and packaged food.

Students who participate in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, also known as food stamps, can now use their benefits to buy some types of food at the Flamingo Run store at the Gordon Dining and Event Center, said UW-Madison housing spokesman Brendon Dybdahl. More locations across campus could follow.

The change is intended to make it easier for low-income students to find food on campus and to give them a similar experience to their peers in better financial situations, he said.

“We want to provide those food resources to people on campus and normalize their experience as much as possible,” Dybdahl said.

Memorial Union submitted an application with the federal government Nov. 1 to accept SNAP benefits at its Union South Badger Market on West Dayton Street, said UW-Madison spokeswoman Meredith McGlone.

In addition, other Flamingo Run locations could start accepting SNAP benefits in the future, Dybdahl said.

For UW-Madison graduate Brooke Evans, who was homeless for much of her time as a student, the move is a positive step in addressing hunger among college students.

“Students have always gone hungry in college and it’s never been OK,” she said. “I want people to see the signs at UW that they take SNAP and I want that to educate people.”

According to a 2016 UW-Madison survey of more than 8,600 students released this fall, 12 percent said they couldn’t always afford sufficient food and housing.

Evans, who pushed administrators to make the change, said it was difficult at first to get them to see that there are students struggling to feed themselves on campus and that allowing food stamp use was necessary.

As of Nov. 13, there were 26 SNAP transactions, Dybdahl said.

Federal government rules limit what can be purchased with SNAP benefits, he said. Cafeteria food and hot prepared food like pizza can’t be purchased.

While Dybdahl said it’s difficult to estimate the number of UW-Madison students who use the federal benefit, 414 families with students at the university used SNAP benefits in 2017.

In a 2015 Wisconsin HOPE Lab survey of about 1,000 low- to moderate-income students at 10 Wisconsin colleges and universities, 6 percent reported using food stamps.

In the 2016 UW-Madison survey, students who said they struggled to afford food reported feeling like they didn’t belong on campus and that they felt less welcome.

Food insecurity can also hamper students’ academic success, a 2016 report by the National Student Campaign Against Hunger and Homelessness and three other organizations found.

But it’s difficult to qualify for the assistance program as a student.

To qualify for SNAP benefits, students generally must be enrolled less than half-time, participate in a federal or state work-study program, work more than 20 hours a week or already receive some public assistance, among other qualifications, according to the United States Department of Agriculture, which administers the program. Single parents enrolled full-time with children under the age of 12 can also qualify.

Evans said she felt excluded from the larger campus community as a student because she couldn’t use her SNAP benefits to buy food on campus or in dining halls. Instead, she would have to leave campus and find a business that accepted SNAP.

“I want to be able to eat with other students. You want to be like other people and you want to be part of a shared experience,” she said. “I would have to leave campus to get just a water bottle. That was extremely frustrating.”

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Chris Aadland is a reporting intern for the Wisconsin State Journal.