Concrete Solutions for Reducing CalFresh ‘Churn’

January 23, 2017

State leadership is needed to implement modern solutions.

In our previous posts, we detailed why CalFresh ‘churn’ is such a big deal – it’s destabilizing for people on the program, expensive for administrators, and all too common.

So what to do about it?

If you were going to create a renewal process for a service or subscription, how would you do it?  What user-friendly features would you include to ensure that everyone could complete the process without lapsing and losing services?

Maybe you would use text and email reminders, instead of snail mail. Even better, put it all online, where all subscribers have to do is indicate if anything has changed since their last renewal. In an ideal world, everything would be done over the phone or online at the subscriber’s convenience. Frankly, in the modern world, none of this is too much to expect.

Unfortunately, the CalFresh renewal process is nothing like this. Clients typically get one letter by mail telling them their deadline for renewal is imminent, but the letter is difficult to understand and the requirements (submitting documents and completing an interview with county staff) are designed for the convenience of the county office, not the person in need of assistance. Not surprisingly, statewide 31% of people with a CalFresh recertification due don’t complete the process successfully. (Read our last blog post about how recertification works).

We have been digging in on this issue and have identified some common-sense solutions. Below are our top recommendations – and the research to support them — to make renewal more modern and user-friendly. We recommend that the state of California and counties work together to implement them.

  • Modernize the process for interview scheduling: ‘Modernizing the CalFresh User Experience’
    • Allow clients to schedule their own interviews for times that work for them – rather than the county assigning pre-determined interview times. Or, even better:
    • Offer ‘on-demand interviews’ so that clients can simply call the county phone number during regular business hours, and ask for an interview over the phone in that moment. This would eliminate scheduling challenges entirely.
  • Modernize communication methods between clients and the county:
  • Make it all user-friendly and intuitive:
    • Simplify bureaucratic forms, so that paperwork is always clear and easy to understand. Social and Behavioral Sciences Team of the Executive Office of the President, 2016 Annual Report

At the end of the day, we know that what gets measured gets done. So, we took county-level churn data and analyzed it over time, to help us see where there are successes and where they may be trends. Tableau visualizations of churn data by county.

The State should be doing the same thing. The problem is, the state doesn’t have the best data, and it has to rely on county-generated reports – with no way to verify or check their accuracy. At a minimum, the state should:

  • Collect monthly churn data reports from counties, that highlight certain important churn metrics. CDSS (California Department of Social Services) is developing the report format right now, and we have already made recommendations about what should be included. ‘Measuring Churn
  • Collect the raw, full data set every quarter – not just a selective monthly report. In order to fix churn statewide, the state needs the raw data and the opportunity to analyze it on a deeper level.
  • Offer technical assistance to counties to implement and assess the effectiveness of churn reduction strategies, starting with simplifying and streamlining the interview scheduling system, modernizing how clients receive reminders, and implementing telephonic signature options.

If the State takes the lead on implementing modern solutions and improves its collection and analysis of churn data, we know we’ll move the needle.

In case you missed them, here are the other posts in this blog series about CalFresh churn:

Post #1: CalFresh ‘Churn’ Means More Missing Meals in SF and Marin

Post #2: The Steep Cost of CalFresh ‘Churn’

Post #3: CalFresh ‘Churn’ Fueled by Outdated, Inadequate Processes

CalFresh ‘Churn’ Means More Missing Meals in SF and Marin

December 1, 2016

CalFresh – known nationally as SNAP and formerly as ‘food stamps’ – is a cornerstone of our food safety net in California. Almost 4.5 million people participate in CalFresh statewide, and more than 60,000[1] people participate in San Francisco and Marin combined. CalFresh participants receive an “EBT card” – which functions like a debit card that gets replenished with CalFresh benefits each month; participants then use CalFresh benefits to buy food in grocery stores and farmers’ markets.

Unfortunately, CalFresh churn is a big problem among many recipients.

Churn is when an eligible recipient unexpectedly loses CalFresh benefits, usually because of missed reporting requirements, only to re-enroll within one to three months.

In order to stay on benefits, CalFresh households must report eligibility information periodically. At six months after initial application, participants must notify the county of any household circumstances that have changed through a form called a SAR 7; at one year, they must re-verify all household information and complete an interview. The idea is that household circumstances sometimes change, and having a regularly scheduled time when participants submit documents and verifications ensures their status with CalFresh remains accurate.

But in practice, many households suddenly find themselves with an empty EBT card, unable to buy groceries. Imagine standing at a grocery check-out counter, only to find that your debit card unexpectedly had a $0 balance? What would that mean for feeding your family and paying the rest of your bills that month?

An interruption in CalFresh benefits, even for a month, can have real, damaging consequences for a family that is living on the edge of financial stability. For example, a household with the average CalFresh benefit of $304 per month would lose about 100 meals during the month when benefits are interrupted.

Statewide, one in five Calfresh applications received is from someone who was on CalFresh in the last 90 days.

Why does this happen? Confusion about the semi-annual reporting process, difficult-to-read letters from the county, language barriers, a missed interview, or a recent change in address or phone number can all result in benefits being terminated. It is not difficult to imagine a situation in which a busy family with multiple jobs, hectic schedules of school and childcare, combined with the stress of paying bills and keeping household paperwork in order, could end up missing CalFresh deadlines. Once benefits have been lost, households sometimes have to reapply for benefits all over again.

In addition to hurting recipients, CalFresh churn is inefficient and troublesome for county administrators. Instead of helping new clients enroll or improving the program overall, workers spend valuable time completing new applications for cases which should never have been discontinued in the first place.

We estimate that in San Francisco and Marin, $280,000 in CalFresh money are lost each month due to churn.

Over the next month, the Food Bank Advocacy Team will share a series of blog posts about CalFresh churn. Next week, we will dive into our county-level data in San Francisco and Marin. In subsequent weeks, we will explore more specifically what causes churn, and provide recommendations to diagnose churn and implement effective solutions.

Join us as we explore this topic!


[1] DFA 256 Report, August 2016:
[2] CDSS CalFresh Household Profile, FFY, 2014: