CalFresh is the largest source of food assistance in Santa Clara and San Mateo counties, followed by Second Harvest Food Bank. But only about half of those who are eligible for CalFresh in the Food Bank’s two-county region participate in the supplemental food program. In fact, participation rates in California are the lowest in the nation.
“The underutilization of CalFresh means that children and families are needlessly going hungry every day,” said Cindy McCown, senior director of Programs and Services at Second Harvest Food Bank. “Our local community is also losing out on millions of dollars each year at a time when they are critically needed to pump up the sluggish economy. We want to make sure everyone who is eligible has access to this critical source of supplemental food.”
An estimated $164.3 million in CalFresh benefits are lost each year in Santa Clara County and $84.8 million in San Mateo County due to low participation, according to the California Food Policy Advocates’ 2012 Lost Dollars, Empty Plates. Every CalFresh dollar received generates $1.79 in economic activity. That means the two counties lose nearly $446 million in economic activity each year due to low participation in the CalFresh program.
Thanks in part to a grant from Cisco, which provided the seed money, Second Harvest Food Bank launched an intensive effort last June to reach out to those who might be eligible and help them apply for CalFresh.
In the first six months of the program, 1,725 CalFresh applications were submitted with the help of Second Harvest outreach specialists, resulting in an estimated $2.28 million in benefits.
“That means about 1.1 million more meals into our community,” McCown said. “Those meals will help local families and individuals who otherwise might go hungry.”
Millions of Meals Needed to Close Gap
According to the 2010 Hunger Index, there is a gap of more than 137 million meals between the number of meals needed in Santa Clara County to feed the hungry and the number of meals provided. In San Mateo County, the gap is more than 47 million meals. The Hunger Index was developed by Santa Clara University’s Leavey School of Business in partnership with Second Harvest to measure the gap between the need for food and the ability of government agencies and food-assistance organizations like Second Harvest to provide it.
“We know that hunger is too big for any one agency or organization to solve,” McCown said. “It will take a focused public/private effort to end hunger. We need to make sure we are leveraging all of our food-assistance resources, including CalFresh.”
In an effort to improve CalFresh participation rates, Second Harvest studied the barriers to applying for the program and issued a report in 2010 called Struggling for Sustenance. It highlights the most common barriers, including immigration fears, complex and changing eligibility rules, and stigma around using the program. The number one barrier was lack of information about the program and its benefits.
Second Harvest launched its Food for Life campaign to raise awareness about CalFresh and remove some of these barriers so people can get the food they need. Second Harvest staff work out in the community to meet with applicants where they live and work with the help of Second Harvest’s Mobile Food Connection, an RV that serves as a mobile office where outreach specialists can meet with applicants. Outreach team members speak several languages, including English, Spanish, and Vietnamese.
SNAP is a Federal Program
While administered at the local level, food stamps is a federal program. Called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) at the federal level, it is one of the most effective assistance programs in the nation. Since the start of the recession, SNAP has kept millions of people from going hungry, including children, the elderly, and those with disabilities. Nationwide, SNAP provides food assistance to about 46 million people. In addition, SNAP accuracy rates are at an all-time high of 96.19 percent. In fact, SNAP has one of the lowest fraud and inaccuracy rates of all federal benefit programs.
Locally, there are about 98,384 CalFresh participants in Santa Clara County and about 23,390 in San Mateo County (California Food Policy Advocates, September 2011). Like the rest of the country, the number of people who participate in food stamps has increased significantly since the start of the recession. Between 2006 and 2011, Santa Clara County saw a 65 percent increase in participants while San Mateo County experienced a 179 percent increase.
“We have seen a significant increase in unemployment and poverty since 2006, so it makes sense that more people need help putting food on the table,” McCown said. “SNAP is targeted to the most vulnerable in our community with 84 percent of all benefits going to households that include a child or an elderly or disabled person.”
Myths Keep Families from Getting Food
She said CalFresh is a critical anti-poverty campaign and yet the myths and mistruths about the program keep people from applying for benefits. The truth about CalFresh is:
• It will not harm your immigration status
• Your children will not be required to serve in the military because you get it
• You don’t have to pay it back
• You don’t need to have children to be eligible
• You don’t have to work in exchange for getting it
• You can have a job and still get it
• You can own your own home and still qualify for it
Those who qualify for CalFresh are issued an EBT debit card that can be used at participating grocery stores and farmers’ markets. It works just like any other debit card.
“Having a debit card helps to remove some of the stigma that is sometimes associated with using CalFresh,” McCown said. “CalFresh puts food on the table and dollars into the local economy. Everyone benefits when people are able to buy healthy foods from their local grocery store or farmers’ market.”
Anyone who was unable to qualify for CalFresh in the past may want to try again. New legislation supported by Second Harvest makes it easier to access this critical program. For example, fingerprinting will no longer be required starting next year. California was one of only a handful of states that required food stamp applicants to be fingerprinted. In addition, reports needed to maintain eligibility will be required semi-annually rather than quarterly.
Second Harvest Food Bank of Santa Clara and San Mateo Counties is the trusted leader dedicated to ending local hunger. Since its inception in 1974, Second Harvest has become one of the largest food banks in the nation, providing food to an average of nearly one quarter of a million people each month. The Food Bank mobilizes individuals, companies and community partners to connect people to the nutritious food they need. Nearly half of the food distributed is fresh produce. Second Harvest also plays a leading role in promoting federal nutrition programs and educating families on how to make healthier food choices. Visit http://www.SHFB.org to get involved.
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Second Harvest Food Bank of Santa Clara and San Mateo Counties is the trusted leader dedicated to ending local hunger. Since its inception in 1974, Second Harvest has become one of the largest food banks in the nation, providing food to an average of nearly one quarter of a million people each month.