Harvard Tells Grad Students to Get Food Stamps to Supplement The Unlivable Wages It Pays Them

The university is hosting an event encouraging graduate students to apply for federal food assistance.
harvard university
Harvard University. Credit: Getty Images

Harvard University is holding an event to help graduate students sign up for government food assistance programs. 

The university’s Health Services office sent a flier to graduate students Wednesday afternoon encouraging them to come to a “SNAP Benefits Sign-Up” event on Thursday afternoon. SNAP, or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, is the program that replaced food stamps. 


“Fuel your body & stock your pantry,” the flier reads. “Did you know that grad students may qualify to receive assistance paying for food & groceries?” 

This is notable in part because Harvard's graduate student workers have gone on strike twice in the last several years in part over their low pay from the university. It's also notable because Harvard is one of the richest academic institutions in the world, and has the largest endowment of any university in the world, with around $50 billion under management.  

The Harvard Graduate Students Union says there are way better ways to help grad students—like, maybe, just paying them. 

“This is an underlying structural problem,” said Koby Ljunggren, the president of HGSU and a graduate researcher and Teaching Fellow at Harvard. “Assistance is good, but we can avoid having to get that assistance if we have higher salaries, which the university has the flexibility to do.” 

Ljunggren explained that the current contract between HGSU and Harvard sets the minimum salary at around $40,000, with some variation depending on the department.


“A key piece of the way this contract is structured is that it’s a minimum,” they said. “If the university wanted to provide more salaries to grad students, so they don’t have to go on food stamps, they could, but they choose not to do it. And that’s a huge issue.” 

Another issue is that SNAP Benefits are generally only available for U.S. citizens (with few exceptions), and a good portion of Harvard’s graduate students are international. “It’s very much inequitable, because around 30 percent of grad students are international, and they’re not eligible to apply,” Ljunggren said. “If they did, they would put their visas in jeopardy. This band-aid solution that the university is providing leaves out about a third of grad students.”

A Harvard spokesperson told Motherboard in an email that the informational session would help students sign up for the federal program and “feature a registered dietician who can assist students in creating inexpensive, yet nutritious meals that fuel their bodies.” 

the event flier

The Event Flier. Credit: HUHS

“I learned about it from a friend,” Ljunggren explained. “Turns out there’s a lot of outrage on Twitter specifically, from people being like, ‘This is uncomfortable that we even have to talk about this.’ We all understand the structural problem. Most of the conversation is disappointment that this is where we are, especially after the run-away inflation we’ve seen this past year.” 


The average rent for a Boston one-bedroom is $3,215 a month. Ljunggren said it’s not uncommon for students to be paying $2,000 a month for a studio apartment, or living with multiple roommates to cover a $4,000-a-month two-bedroom.

“It’s so bad! My grocery bills have gone way up in the past year. Typically I’d be spending $70, $80, $90 a week depending on what we need—now that’s gone up to $100, $110, $120,” Ljunggren said, noting that since they live with their partner, they work to support two people. 

“That’s part of the reason I work two jobs now,” they continued. “I feel like I’m living fairly comfortably because I’m working so much, and I don’t know what I would really do if I wasn’t working two jobs. It’s uncomfortable because I don’t want to be working this much. It’s really not sustainable.” 

The Harvard spokesperson wrote to Motherboard, “Students should be aware of any assistance that may support their ability to have a balanced life. This session will provide students with that information in a stigma-free environment.” 

Ljunggren agreed, and said the union was encouraging graduate students to attend and apply if they were eligible. “It’s a public service, and people should go if they need it.”

They also said that the graduate union at MIT was doing a big push to get their salaries to meet the cost of living, and that in the next iteration of HGSU’s contract, the union would likely also look at cost of living adjustments. 

“The graduate union is always here to help folks financially, monetarily, trying to get people benefits,” they said. “If you have a grad union on campus, I would encourage you to reach out. I love grad unions. That’s why I’m the president of mine.”