MADISON, Wis. - The University of Wisconsin-Madison now accepts food stamps as payment for eligible items at one of its campus convenience stores after student campaigns urging the school to do so to alleviate food insecurity.
Users of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly known as food stamps, can buy federally eligible grocery items at the Flamingo Run store located within the Gordon Dining & Event center.
It's the first location on campus to allow that.
College students are not immune from hunger. According to a 2016 report by the National Student Campaign Against Hunger & Homelessness, about one in five students at four-year colleges qualify as having "very low food security."
Brooke Evans knows it all too well. The proud Badger was well-known both on and off campus for her activism on issues surrounding students dealing with homelessness and poverty.
She shared her firsthand experiences as a homeless college student with Glamour magazine in 2016.
"There were so many spaces on this campus I couldn't go," she said.
Evans said she began her push for the university to accept food stamps back in 2013.
"I was a dropout from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, typically not something that people wave (around) with pride, but I'm not embarrassed about it," Evans said. "In my year as a dropout, I started to take a real inventory of what exactly challenges were on campus for me and why I struggled to connect."
One of those struggles was access to food. Evans said she relied on SNAP benefits but had a limited selection of retailers accepting food stamps to choose from close to campus.
"I don't think I ever envisioned it happening in my time as a student," Evans said.
Brendon Dybdahl, spokesperson for University Housing, which operates Flamingo Run and other on-campus food establishments, said UW-Madison started its plans to accept food stamps last year. He said the university hopes to eventually extend food stamp acceptance to other on-campus stores.
"The hope is to eventually expand it out to a couple of our other convenience stores on campus," Dybdahl said. "We had looked originally at being able to offer it in our dining markets, cafeterias and dining halls and all that, but right now the federal guidelines kind of prohibit us from having those places be eligible."
Dybdahl said the university is unable to extend food stamp access to its dining halls because the federal government doesn't allow users to purchase hot, prepared foods with SNAP benefits.
"We would love, if some day the guidelines change, and we had the opportunity to offer that experience to students," Dybdahl said.
So far, Dybdahl said, the rollout has been slow, with only six transactions in the roughly two weeks Flamingo Run has accepted SNAP payments, but he hopes to see more students take advantage as word gets out.
Dybdahl said ultimately, the university hopes to help students dealing with hunger feel more connected to campus.
"We hope that it offers a little bit more of a typical experience for students so they don't feel different," he said.
Evans, who graduated in May and is now spending time on the West Coast, said she looks forward to returning to campus to see the results firsthand.
"I'm quite excited to return as an alum and use my SNAP (on campus) that I've used in my college career to make it," she said.
For Evans, it's a small but important step to solving the bigger problem of food insecurity.
"What I want to make clear is, of course it doesn't solve the issue," she said. "It is one component that does and an essential component."
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