For people with a limited income, CalFresh provides stability – it is a vital resource in being able to purchase food for themselves and their families. In our service area of San Francisco and Marin, a combined 60,000 people rely on CalFresh as a supplement to their food budgets. Most households that receive CalFresh include children and elderly family members – our most vulnerable low-income neighbors.
After an application process that considers income, assets and overall need, counties provide an Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) card to qualified recipients – allowing people to purchase food from grocery stores and other food retailers that accept EBT dollars. This allows families to supplement the food they are able to purchase themselves, or that they may be receiving from their neighborhood food pantry. This gives families choice and agency around how they feed themselves and their families.
The problem is, millions of Californians who qualify for the program are not receiving benefits. In fact, California is the worst performing state when it comes to enrolling eligible people. Less than 60% of eligible Californians are receiving benefits, compared to some of the best performing states like Oregon and Washington where close to 100% of eligible people are enrolled. In addition to very low enrollment in California, we have one of the highest administrative costs per case – making our program very expensive to operate.
In San Francisco and Marin, an estimated 56,000 people may be eligible for CalFresh but are not enrolled. In other words, only about 50% of all eligible residents of San Francisco and Marin are receiving CalFresh. This means thousands of families are continuing to struggle with hunger when they could be receiving vital support.
Improving CalFresh benefits everyone
In addition to providing stability for families, the use of CalFresh dollars spurs the local economy. In San Francisco and Marin alone, we are missing out on over $150 million dollars of local economic activity every year. And as a state, California is missing out on an estimated $8.7 billion dollars of economic activity per year that would be created if everyone eligible for CalFresh received benefits.
CalFresh also provides powerful leverage for local governments, because the CalFresh dollars that people receive on their EBT cards are paid for entirely by the federal government, while only a small fraction of the administrative costs are paid for through local funding. In San Francisco, the city only pays 15%, or $3.6 million per year for the administrative costs of operating the CalFresh program. In other words, a very small local investment can yield large economic benefits for our community. More precisely, we know that a $1 investment from the City generates $48 in economic activity.
But, why is participation so low? For many years, California had policies in place that restricted eligibility. Most of those policies have been eliminated, but a major issue remains. Unlike most other states, California has a county operated program, which means that instead of having one state agency that manages the program, we have 58 small agencies that all operate their programs in slightly different ways. Having inconsistent policies and procedures in each county creates confusion for CalFresh recipients and inefficiencies for the program as a whole. We are working to change this so that all Californians can secure the resources they need to buy food.
Making statewide improvements with the Alliance to Transform CalFresh
In 2009 and 2010, the SF-Marin Food Bank brought together national and state leaders to develop a plan to improve CalFresh. The outgrowth of these meetings was the initiation of the Alliance to Transform CalFresh, a collaboration of leading non-profit organizations dedicated to raising California’s CalFresh participation rate. One of the first things the Alliance committed to was a goal of raising California’s participation rate from one of the worst in the country, to the national average of 75% by 2016.
The Alliance advocates for a CalFresh program that benefits all Californians equally. With the belief that a CalFresh recipient in San Francisco should expect the same excellent service as a CalFresh recipient in San Bernardino or Sonoma, the Alliance urges consistency and efficiency statewide.
The Alliance’s key strategies for strengthening the CalFresh program will make the program processes simple, fair and efficient. To accomplish this, we must:
1) Integrate CalFresh with other public assistance programs, like Medi-Cal. Many people who receive Medi-Cal are also eligible for CalFresh (and vice versa), so we think that people seeking assistance shouldn’t have to fill out two sets of complicated applications in order to receive both benefits.
For example, we expect the integration of services when we go to the doctor’s office. We know that if our primary care doctor refers us to a specialist, there is a system in place by which our records and test results will be communicated between these two doctors. We do not have to complete identical physical exams in both offices – because the offices talk to each other and share information. We believe this standard should apply when low-income families need to enroll in two or more programs with similar eligibility requirements.
2) Ensure timely service for families and individuals applying for CalFresh. A family cannot wait to eat dinner for two weeks while their eligibility status is evaluated and paperwork is being processed. We believe that people should be able to enroll in CalFresh in one day – eliminating the need for multiple office visits, waiting for benefits to kick in, and ensuring stability in a family’s food budget.
3) Guarantee that families don’t have their CalFresh benefits terminated or suspended for avoidable administrative reasons. We know that about one in five CalFresh applications in San Francisco and Marin are submitted by people who were on CalFresh at some point within the last three months. This means that a significant number of applications are coming from families that fell off the program for administrative reasons – often because the periodic reapplication/verification process is confusing and cumbersome. We believe the process for staying enrolled in the program should be simple and efficient.
Advocating for CalFresh improvements through legislation
In 2013 we worked with the California Food Policy Advocates to sponsor SB 1147 (DeSaulnier), legislation that was designed to ensure that CalFresh enrollment and participation is smooth and consistent for all Californians. Specifically, the bill would have established statewide CalFresh customer service standards and performance goals.
Although the bill did not pass, we are encouraged by the positive and productive conversations we had with leaders about the importance of setting statewide goals and expectations for the CalFresh program.