SNAP Q&A with Luis Perez

Hunger is an almost invisible, yet troubling, facet of the modern, U.S. college experience. An estimated 39 percent of Massachusetts students reported that they experienced food insecurity in 2018, and the rate is significantly higher for those attending community college. This silent crisis is hitting students who don’t fall within the typical 18 to 22-year-old student demographic particularly hard. Older students, many with families and jobs, are struggling and must often make a choice between paying tuition and purchasing books or feeding themselves and their families. 

To make matters worse, applying for safety net benefits can be confusing and nerve-wracking, especially for individuals who are unfamiliar with the application process. 

From left to right, Derek Dunlea, Luis Perez, and Leslie Elum (Student Life Assistant).

Luis Perez, SNAP Outreach Coordinator at The Food Bank, spends much of his time helping area college students apply for SNAP benefits (formerly food stamps). At UMass Amherst, he works closely with members of the Dean of Students’ Office to discretely offer his services to those who might be in need or at risk of food insecurity.  In a recent interview there, Luis explained exactly what that process looks like. 


Q: Who is eligible for SNAP?

Luis Perez: There are a number of things taken into consideration when the DTA (Department of Transitional Assistance) evaluates eligibility. One of the biggest ones is income, but it also depends on the size and makeup of your household.

UMass Amherst campus

Q: What kinds of obstacles do students face in qualifying for benefits and how are they different from non-students?

LP: The students have a lot more obstacles. There’s more paperwork that they have to fill out. For example, they have to fill out a form called the Educational Income and Expense Form, or Educ-1, which needs to be filled out by financial aid. It’s a little bit more of a process. Not only that but they have more obstacles and more guidelines because they’re students. If you have a dorm you probably have a meal plan and you’re also not technically paying rent.

Q: What kind of trends are there in eligibility? For example, are there many traditional students or is there a majority of non-traditional students, i.e. older students or students with families?

LP: Most of the applications are community college students. I would consider these students non-traditional because they don’t live in dorms, they don’t have meal plans, and usually have more going on outside of school, meaning work or children to take care of. Also since many of them do not have work study, which would exempt you from having to get paystubs, many of them work jobs outside of school and they do have to provide paystubs for the last 30 days they worked. There is also an extra form called The Community College Verification Form which they have to take to Financial Aid, along with an Educ-1 form and have a financial aid personnel fill out and sign the form. Unfortunately, I feel grad students especially don’t get a fair chance. Grad students are usually not eligible for work study. They do not live on campus, which means they have to work to pay rent, utilities etc., as well as their student work load, therefore they will have to show their paystubs if they are working.”

Q: How can students go about applying for SNAP?

LP: We are actually one of only two agencies in western Massachusetts that can take and process applications over the phone. It’s us and Project Bread. You can apply online but we really recommend that students come to us because we are experienced and we know how to properly represent your information and understand the complex application. The other thing is, that we know all the required paperwork and that’s often a huge obstacle for applicants.

Q: Admitting hardship can be a difficult or painful experience for people, with a lot of stigma attached. Is there a way that students can discretely apply for or receive their benefits?

LP: It’s all very private. We sign a confidentiality agreement when they come in and talk to me. They also offer a lot of other services in the Dean of Students’ Office, so there’s no way for someone to assume the reason for their visit. We also have this private room, it’s easy for a student to come and not have to worry about being judged.

Q: Does UMass have any special tools to help connect students who may be experiencing food insecurity with benefits?

LP: Yes, if you go to the Dean of Students website there’s a whole section under “Student Life” that says “Support Services” and there’s information there about microgrants and the Student Care Supply Closet, ect.

Q: Are there resources readily available – for example, on campus– for students who may have immediate need?

LP: There are. If you have immediate need you can go to the dining commons and get emergency swipes. They also have different meal plans now for a range of prices. They also have a pantry here in the Dean’s of Students office and they also have toiletries and school supplies available.

Q: Is there anything else you think students should know about SNAP or is there anything I’ve missed?

LP: I think the main thing to come away with, especially here at UMass, is first of all finding the resources. The reason why I’m here working with the Dean of Students Office is to get the word out. If someone comes here in need, they can easily be referred to me. We also do tabling events in the Campus Center every other Monday. I have my sign and talk to people about SNAP and even if they’re intimidated and don’t want to come up and talk we have flyers and post card handouts. It’s more discrete and it let’s people know they can come here and get help.