Kelley Atherton, The Triplicate

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


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.

Missing out on millions

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


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,, 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


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."

Getting more enrolled

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


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."

Reach Kelley Atherton at