Of the eligible, 87 percent are using benefits
Of the people eligible to receive assistance buying food, most in Del Norte County are taking advantage of the benefits.
Del Norte ranks No. 1 in utilization of the state’s CalFresh program with about 87 percent of eligible people participating, according to the California Food Policy Advocates, a statewide policy and advocacy organization.
CalFresh is California’s version of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as the Food Stamps Program. It’s used to purchase food at grocery stores and the Farmers Market.
Despite the top ranking, the California Food Policy Advocates estimates Del Norters are losing out on about $1 million per year in CalFresh benefits, which could generate nearly $2 million in economic activity.
Gary Blatnick, the director of the county Department of Health and Human Services, said that local participation in CalFresh has been high for the past several years. This could be because other agencies are helping to spread the word about CalFresh as DHHS doesn’t do active outreach to get more participants, he said.
“We attribute it, in part, to the fact we value our partnerships with other agencies,” Blatnick said. “Our association with them makes people more aware of who we are and what we have to offer — they encourage people to apply for benefits.”
Statewide, only 53 percent of those eligible for CalFresh are enrolled. California is losing out on an estimated $4.9 billion in federal benefits that would generate $8.7 billion in economic activity as a result, according to the California Food Policy Advocates.
Nationwide, Maine and Oregon had the highest participation rate in SNAP of eligible residents with 100 percent and 99 percent, respectively, according to the USDA, while California was dead last.
Participation remains low in California for several reasons: misinformation about eligibility, stigma, and a burdensome application process, according to the California Food Policy Advocates.
“What this is showing us is we have long way to go in reaching all of those individuals,” said Tia Shimada, a nutrition policy advocate for the California Food Policy Advocates.
“It’s not just low-income folks that are harmed by lack of utilization — we’re all being affected,” she said.
According to the California Food Policy Advocates’ report “Empty Plates, Lost Dollars,” an estimated 4,923 Del Norters receive CalFresh on average each month. But, there are an estimated 5,676 people who are eligible — a difference of 752 locals.
That’s a loss of a little more than $1 million in CalFresh benefits, according to the California Food Policy Advocates.
On average, Del Norte recipients get $148 a month for food. The maximum is $200, and the amount depends on the number of people in the household.
To be eligible, residents must earn less than 130 percent of the federal poverty level based on how many people are in the family.
For one person, that’s a gross income of $931 a month or for a family of three, $1,591 a month, said Carmen Song-Chavez, the program manager for the county Public Assistance/Employment Training branch of DHHS.
CalFresh is meant to supplement a family’s or individual’s income, she said. Many people may not realize they are eligible for benefits because they are working, Blatnick said.
To check eligibility and sign up for CalFresh, go to the website, C4yourself.com, or stop by DHHS at 880 Northcrest Drive to get an application and to make an appointment.
Some people may not want CalFresh benefits because they see it as a hand-out, Blatnick said.
“Almost everyone who applies for benefits has, in some point in their life, worked and paid taxes and has fallen on hard times,” he said. “We encourage people who are eligible to apply.”
That’s is the case with many in the economic recession, Blatnick said.
In Del Norte, about 60 percent of CalFresh recipients are children, Blatnick said. Food insecurity has been identified as a troublesome issue in the community, he said, and CalFresh benefits can help.
CalFresh not only provides money for people to buy food, it has an effect on the local and state economy.
According to “Empty Plates, Lost Dollars,” every CalFresh dollar spent generates $1.79 in economic activity.
“Receiving CalFresh benefits can allow households to redistribute income that would normally be allocated to purchasing food. A portion of this redistributed income can be spent on taxable goods, which generates sales tax revenue for the state and counties,” the report states.
The California Food Policy Advocates estimates there would be nearly $2 million in increased economic activity for Del Norte if every eligible person signed up for CalFresh.
That would mean nearly $20,000 in additional state sales tax and $5,000 in revenue for the county.
“This helps the tax base and the merchants — that’s why the state is being so aggressive in increasing participation,” Blatnick said. “California is very concerned about people not applying for the benefits so they’ve made it easier to apply.”
The state Legislature has taken action to help people get CalFresh benefits.
AB 6, The CalFresh Act of 2011, removed the fingerprint image requirement so applicants can complete the application online or on the phone and don’t have to visit an office. The legislation also reduced paperwork for recipients and increased benefits for many.
In its report, California Food Policy Advocates offers suggestions to further increase participation in CalFresh.
One proposal would change eligibility requirements by removing asset calculations (assets such as savings or a 401k, which could affect eligibility for benefits) and raising the gross income threshold so more people could receive CalFresh.
AB 433, passed in 2008, did change the rules so participants could maintain savings without losing their benefits.
Raising the income-level for eligibility could allow families with modest incomes and high expenses to receive benefits, the report states.
“If California were to adopt such a strategy, any household that receives Medi-Cal and has a gross income at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty level would be income-eligible for CalFresh,” the report states.
In 2014 when eligibility for Medi-Cal expands, an estimated 2 million more Californians will be able to receive the state health care plan.
“With the surge of people soon to be seeking coverage, California has an unprecedented opportunity to reach individuals and families that are eligible for, but not receiving, nutrition assistance,” the report states. “A significant portion of the CalFresh-eligible population is also eligible for Medi-Cal (and vice versa).”
AB 1560, sponsored by California Food Policy Advocates, would make this change and has been introduced in the Legislature, according to the report.
Starting this year, enrollment in CalFresh will be streamlined for seniors. AB 6 allows seniors to apply for CalFresh when they sign up for social security.
Another idea is to inform people of their eligibility for CalFresh at various times they have to share personal information, such as a driver’s license, filing income tax returns, enrolling a child in school, applying for retirement benefits, and enrolling in health coverage, the report states.
One of the biggest deterrents is that people — particularly seniors — don’t think they are eligible for CalFresh, Shimada said.
“We need to reach those households who could be getting benefits,” she said.
In Del Norte, Blatnick said DHHS has partnerships with the school district, Sutter Coast Hospital, the Del Norte Community Health Center, California Tribal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program, United Indian Health Services, Woman, Infants and Children (WIC) program, Building Healthy Communities initiative, the Children’s Health Collaborative and the Community Food Council.
“The benefit of living in this community,” Blatnick said, “is you can take advantage of the fact you’re small and communicate what’s available so people who are entitled to these benefits and should take advantage when they need them.”