Special rules for students

The rules prohibiting “students” from getting CalFresh benefits are complex. There are myriad definitions and exceptions affecting student eligibility for CalFresh. But to boil it down to its essence, the bar against a student getting CalFresh requires a two-step determination: First, does the person fit the definition of “student”? If so, then second, does the student NOT fall within one of the listed exceptions? Carefully evaluate these two questions to ensure the prohibition against a student getting CalFresh benefits is correctly determined. Remember, the “student bar” applies, if at all, only to the individual, and not the household.  More details are available in the CDSS CalFresh Student Handbook version 2.0.

Definition of “student”

Here’s the drill:

  • The student — aged 18-49 — must be physically and mentally fit. If the individual has a disability, they should not be barred from receiving CalFresh.
  • The student must be enrolled at least “half time.” This component is defined by the school. [7 C.F.R. § 273.5(a); MPP §§ 63-406.1 and 63-406.21.]
  • The student must be enrolled in “higher education.” [7 C.F.R. § 273.5(a); MPP §§ 63-406.1 and 63-406.21.] Higher education institutions are either:
    • business, trade, technical or vocational schools normally requiring a high school diploma or GED to enroll; or
    • a junior, community, two-year or four-year college or university, or graduate school, regardless whether a high school diploma or GED is required.
      • Students must be both enrolled at least “half-time” (as defined by the school) and enrolled in a “regular curriculum.” [MPP § 63-406.111(a)(2).]
      • “Regular curriculum” means the course in which the person is enrolled meets the standard requirements for graduation or certification or qualification in a particular field of study. [MPP § 63-406.111.]
      • If the program or course — as opposed to the college — does not require a diploma or GED, the student bar would not apply. [MPP § 63-406.111(a)(2)(A); 60 Fed.Reg. 48865-69.] (For example, if an English as a second language (ESL) program generally does not require a high school degree or GED, then all students enrolled in ESL would not be considered “enrolled in higher education,” for purposes of the student prohibition of receiving CalFresh.)


See, generally, 7 C.F.R. §§ 273.5(b); MPP § 63-406.211. Individuals can get CalFresh benefits if they meet one of the following requirements:

  • Employed 20 hours a week based on a reasonably anticipated monthly average [ACL 12-37; ACL 17-97; ACIN I-66-16].
  • Receiving federal or state work-study money. “Receiving” means when the student is approved for state or federally work study for the current school term, anticipates working during the term, and has not refused a work assignment.  [ACL 17-05; ACIN I-89-15.] This exemption applies even if a work study job assignment has not yet begun or is not available.  The exemption begins the month the school term starts or the month work study is approved, whichever is later. The exemption continues until the end of the month the school term ends.  [MPP § 63-406.212].  CDSS has created a form letter that colleges can use to verify work study approval.  [ACL 20-114.]
  • Approved for a TANF-funded Cal Grant A or B. [ACL 17-05.] The California Student Aid Commission should provide written notification to recipients of Cal Grant A or B awards regarding their potential eligibility for CalFresh.  [ACL 18-27.]
  • Students with children, as follows:
    • full-time student with a child under age 12; or
    • part-time student with a child under age six or a child between ages six and 12 for whom adequate care is not available; or
    • receiving CalWORKs;
  • Enrolled in a CalFresh employment and training (FSET) program, or other state or local job training programs that USDA will accept. [7 C.F.R. § 273.5(b)(11).]
  • Does not intend to register for the next normal school term. [7 C.F.R. § 273.5(c).] See ACIN I-36-12 for treatment of applicants declaring intent not to re-enroll.
  • Enrolled in a program to increase the student’s employability, including programs for low-income students that are operated by a state or local government where one or more of the components of the program are equivalent to an Employment and Training (E&T) component.  [7 C.F.R. § 273.5(b)(11).]  Those components include Adult Basic Education, Career & Technical Education, English Language Acquisition, Work Readiness Training, and Work Experience.  CDSS determines whether a state or local program qualifies under this definition.  [ACL 22-46.]  Campus based programs that meet these requirements must submit an application to CDSS on or before September 1, 2022.  Counties will no longer participate in the process of identifying campus based LPIEs. CDSS has a list of approved programs on its website.  After September 1, 2022, the list will be updated monthly to identify new programs, newly qualifying programs and previously approved programs that no longer meet the criteria.  [Id.]

CDSS has determined that Campus Based Employment and Research and Teaching Assistantship Program always meet the criteria for being considered LPIEs and therefore students in those programs are eligible for CalFresh benefits.  [Id.]

Programs at private institutions are no longer eligible for LPIE status because the programs must be operated by a state or local government. [Id.] Previously approved programs at private institutions are removed from the approved list effective September 1, 2022.  Students who are already enrolled in those programs and are receiving CalFresh on that basis must remain eligible for the length of their certification period.  Student eligibility status must be reassessed at the student’s next recertification.  [Id.]

Most state-funded and foster youth programs previously approved as LPIEs will be removed from the approved list.  These programs will need to be individually assessed and approved as meeting the criteria to be LPIEs.  [Id.]

Programs that were previously approved that now must be individually identified and assessed as having a component equivalent to a CalFresh Education and Training component include: Extended Opportunity Programs and Services (EOPS), Educational Opportunity Program (EOP),  Disabled Students Programs and Services (DSPS) & Student Academic Services (SAS),Cooperative Agencies Resources for Education (CARE) Program, McNair Scholars Program, Mathematics, Engineering, Science Achievement (MESA) Program, Unaccompanied Refugee Minors (URM) Program, Guardian Scholars Program, Foster Youth Success Initiative (FYSI), Cooperating Agencies Foster Youth Educational Support (CAFYES), Chafee Education and Training Voucher (ETV) Program, and Extended Foster Care (AB 12/AB 212).  [Id.] Students who are already enrolled in those programs and are receiving CalFresh on that basis must remain eligible for the length of their certification period.  Student eligibility status must be reassessed at the student’s next recertification.  [Id.]

Students who are enrolled in a LPIE should be informed by their campus that they meet an exception to the student eligibility rule.  If a student states, verbally or in writing, that they are  enrolled in a program that is on the list of approved LPIEs, counties should exempt the student from the student rule unless that information is questionable.  [Id.] If the information is questionable, acceptable verification can include, a transcript, an email from an instructor, verbal affirmation from a campus official, or targeted outreach emails from campuses to LPIE      enrollees.  [Id.]  If a program does not appear on the LPIE list, counties must explore whether the student is enrolled in another LPIE or meets another exemption from the student rule before  determining that the student is ineligible for CalFresh.   [Id.]

  • Enrolled in a Workforce Innovation and Opportunities Act program. [MPP § 63-406.216; ACL 15-70.]
  • Enrolled in Extended Opportunities Programs and Services. [MPP § 63-406.216; ACL 15-70.]

For information about verification of student rule exemptions, see Verifications the CalFresh Office Requires.

Additional exceptions to student rule because of COVID-19

The Consolidated Appropriations Act 2021 expands the exception for work study to any student eligible to participate in a state or federally financed work study during the regular school year, as determined by the school. While this exception is in effect, it is no longer required that students be approved for work study and anticipate working. [ACL 21-11.] CDSS has temporarily changed the work study verification letter to reflect this change.

The Consolidated Appropriations Act 2021 adds an exception to the CalFresh student rule for students who have a zero dollar expected family contribution. [Id.] This is determined by information on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) or the California Dream Act Application. The California Student Aid Commission determines who has a zero dollar expected family contribution. Verification can include, but is not limited to, a letter from the California Student Aid Commission confirming a zero dollar expected family contribution, a student’s Student Aid Report or a financial aid offer letter. [Id.] The California Student Aid Commission will send all students with a zero dollar expected family contribution an informing letter about this new exception to the CalFresh student rule.

These new exemptions will no longer be available to new CalFresh applicants beginning on June 10, 2023 (30 days after the end of the federal Public Health Emergency). [ACIN I-18-23.]

Students who are currently exempt under one of the COVID-19 exemptions must remain exempt until their next annual recertification. [Id.] Student status is not redetermined mid-period or periodic report.  [Id.]  Beginning July 1, 2023, students who must do annual recertification will need to meet one of the permanent exemptions to the CalFresh student rule in order to be eligible. [Id.]