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Groundbreaking proposal would make UW-Madison dining halls food stamp accessible

Jeff Novak, UW-Madison’s director of university housing, announced his intention to make dining halls food stamp accessible in a speech to ASM’s Student Council Wednesday.

Image By: Jon Yoon

Starting next fall, UW-Madison could be the first school in the nation to accept food stamps in dining halls, according to a university administrator who called the program a no-brainer.

Director of University Housing Jeff Novak and Associate Dining Director Julie Luke are spearheading a plan, which, if approved by the state government, would allow eligible students to use food stamps to pay for meals in UW-Madison’s dining halls.

When asked why he is pushing to make dining halls more accessible to low-income students, Novak replied, “I can think of no downside.”

“If it would allow even one person the opportunity, with really no major cost to us, I can see no reason why you wouldn’t do it,” Novak told The Daily Cardinal.

University Housing began considering the idea after receiving an article about a similar program at Oregon State University, which is one of a handful of universities with food stamp accessible on-campus markets. However, Novak and his staff hope to take it one step further and implement the initiative in dining halls.

Brooke Evans, an ASM representative and a well-known advocate for low-income students, has been urging University Housing to make dining halls food stamp accessible since 2014. Luke began seriously examining the possibility of such a policy last summer, and she and Novak reached out to Evans in January to discuss partnering on the initiative.

“I met with Jeff Novak for the first time in Fall 2014 to discuss issues of affordable housing, emergency housing, and food access,” Evans said. “I came here with the same burning questions I’d had for years that had never been asked or answered before … [such as] why won’t you let me use my food stamps in your facilities?”

Evans applied for SNAP benefits in 2013 after spending time as a homeless student in Madison and La Crosse. But she still wondered why she could not use her food stamps in university dining halls.

“There were tangible holes in my Badger experience,” Evans said. “I too want to eat next to my peers as a vital component of the campus experience and Wisconsin Experience.”

Wednesday night, Novak and Luke joined Evans and other representatives at an ASM Student Council meeting to formally announce the proposal.

“I hope it will be a great service to campus,” Luke told the council. “It seemed very daunting at the beginning … but now it seems very doable.”

The council later passed legislation supporting the proposal, titled the “Food Stamp Friendly Campus Proposal,” and demanding the Wisconsin Union also commit to becoming food stamp accessible. ASM Chair Carmen Goséy praised the idea and commended Evans’ “leadership and commitment.”

“I’m glad University Housing is taking this step, and hopefully we can set an example for universities across the country to follow,” Goséy said in a statement. “This opens the doors to a more inclusive campus where students from all backgrounds feel welcomed.”

The proposal is much more feasible for UW-Madison than it would be for other institutions because of the university’s à la carte meal plan. Since the government requires demarcation of food stamp acceptable items, there would be no way to implement such a program at a university with all-you-can-eat dining halls.

“Because of our à la carte nature, that allows us to be considered more like a grocery store,” Novak said. “Our dining facilities are more like retail units, where you pay for what you take, and therefore, you can pre-code allowable items.”

Luke says the goal is to have food stamp accessible dining halls by next fall, but this depends on whether the initiative is approved by the state government.

The university must apply to the state for approval before it can go forward with the plan. Evans said she will work with University Housing to put together the application.

“I’ve written articles, created materials and plans for implementation, I’ve done interviews, I’ve presented on this material throughout the state,” Evans said. “I will continue to work with Julie and Jeff as we move forward on submitting our application.”

The most time-intensive part of the application process, according to Novak, will be determining which food items the university offers are acceptable under the state’s food stamp program. Hot, prepared foods cannot be paid for with food stamps, but Novak says the salad bar could be acceptable.

Although it is unclear how many students would directly benefit from such a program, Novak said it would be “a win for all.”

“I think anything we can do to help college students with affordability and accessibility is what we should be trying to do.”

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