Millions of low-income Californians are missing out on anti-hunger programs
CalFresh — California's name for the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as "food stamps" — is an essential source of aid for low-income people in need, providing an average of about $146 per person per month to purchase food.
But the program isn't reaching everyone who is eligible for help. About 3.6 million people who are eligible for CalFresh are missing out on this important form of food assistance, putting them at increased risk of hunger. In fact, California has the lowest program participation rate of all 50 states — only a little more than half of the eligible people are enrolled in the program.
Expanding access to CalFresh is a crucial part of getting food to people who need it. Making that happen will require a coordinated statewide CalFresh policy.
With leadership from the SF-Marin Food Bank, a group of nonprofit organizations and businesses joined forces as the Alliance to Transform CalFresh.
The Alliance is developing policy recommendations that can help CalFresh reach hundreds of thousands more eligible people over the next few years.
Why is participation so low?
CalFresh operates as a decentralized system of county-based programs, so business practices, policies and procedures vary from county to county. Not even the computer systems are shared. Successful states, on the other hand, run centralized programs where innovative ideas can be scaled up statewide more easily.
While counties do conduct outreach to try to boost participation, the enrollment process is cumbersome, particularly for seniors, immigrants and transient populations. And without state leadership, even counties doing their best have difficulty succeeding.
Improving CalFresh makes economic sense
The use of CalFresh benefits to buy food spurs the local economy. California is missing out on an estimated $8.7 billion of dollars of economic activity that would be created if CalFresh enabled more low-income people to buy more of the food they need.
With new statewide policies and improved practices, CalFresh can also create new efficiency. Currently, CalFresh has the highest administrative cost per case compared to programs in other states.
Increasing CalFresh participation rates can also help relieve the strain on emergency food providers like food banks.
Recognizing the need for collaboration among stakeholders to accomplish policy goals, the Food Bank led a two-year strategic planning process that resulted in the founding of the Alliance to Transform CalFresh. The Alliance is based at the California Association of Food Banks where Paul Ash, Executive Director of the SF-Marin Food Bank, is chair of the board. Other founding Alliance members include California Food Policy Advocates, Catholic Charities of California United, and the California Family Resource Association.
The Alliance to Transform CalFresh has set the ambitious yet attainable goal of increasing CalFresh participation by 50% by 2016, a move that would improve California's rank and put it among the top ten programs in the nation.
The Alliance has focused its recommendations along three themes:
- Uniformity: Create statewide CalFresh policies and processes to guarantee uniform access and consistently excellent client experience in every county.
- Integration: Integrate CalFresh operating systems with the new health care administration system (“the Exchange”) being built as part of the state’s response to the federal Affordable Care Act enacted in 2010. Integrating California’s largest human services programs would improve access and efficiency.
- Simplification: Reduce barriers to CalFresh participation and simplify administration.
The Alliance is making a difference
By bringing together a broad group of knowledgeable stakeholders, the Alliance facilitates a robust on-going discussion about how best to improve CalFresh and better serve people in need. And because we're bringing local leaders together with national experts on specific policy and programmatic areas, the Alliance brings a fresh perspective and additional knowledge resources to the reform discussion.
For example, the Alliance commissioned an analysis of California’s options for integrating health care and social services, resulting in the July 2012 report, Apply and Connect.