Food access looms large while thousands in Butte County leave CalFresh benefits unused
In the bread basket that is Butte County, where farmers literally feed the world, it’s a sad irony that nearly 1 in 5 residents face food insecurity. Namely, they lack the income to buy enough to eat and/or lack access to fresh, healthful foods because they can’t reach a grocer.
The problem is greater than grumbling tummies—it’s a full-fledged medical matter, one so significant that it’s addressed in the county’s Community Health Improvement Plan, released in late October.
“People with poor diets experience higher rates of type-2 diabetes, heart disease, blood-pressure-related illnesses—the list goes on and on,” said Kristin Gruneisen, program supervisor at the Center for Healthy Communities (CHC), a nonprofit under the Chico State Research Foundation.
“So there really is a benefit that if we can improve that economic situation for the individual; we do see an improvement in all those health parameters,” she continued. “The core diet is tied to many risk factors for chronic-related diseases.”
CalFresh fills the prescription. As California’s version of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, CalFresh provides government funding for food purchases to households meeting income requirements. The program originated as food stamps; now participants receive a debit card. The stipend is not enough to fully feed people, but rather enrich their nutrition—hence the name behind the SNAP acronym.
CHC has a contract with the state to provide outreach for CalFresh. The center, along with four subcontracting agencies in neighboring counties, educates and rallies potential participants. And there are plenty of them—Butte County has approximately 30,000 residents enrolled in CalFresh, but 51,500 are eligible for the program. That means 21,500 people could benefit, but don’t.
According to California Food Policy Advocates, a statewide organization focused on food access for low-income individuals, if everyone enrolled they’d bring $24.5 million in federal funding into the county, yielding a total of $43.9 million additional economic activity.
“Those numbers are pretty staggering for just our one county alone,” Gruneisen said.
Beyond the significant impact such money would have on local agriculture, getting more Butte County residents enrolled in CalFresh would also benefit the health of individuals and families.
“There are quite a few people in this county who, income-wise, are not able to afford a proper diet,” said Alica Bedore, community nutrition assistant at CHC. “Whether that’s quality or quantity, they’re not getting what they need…. Oftentimes for people who receive CalFresh benefits, it also helps reduce their stress for how they’re going to pay for some of their other necessities. That reduced stress also contributes to improving their health.”
CHC workers will be on hand Saturday (Nov. 14) at Enloe Medical Center’s Community Wellness Expo to both inform and enroll people about CalFresh. Deanna Reed, community outreach coordinator at Enloe, invited the center to set up a booth after learning about its work and the CalFresh data at a recent public health meeting.
“When we did our needs assessment in 2013, we found there’s a surprising number of families and individuals in Butte County who struggle with [food access],” Reed said, “so it’s something we’ve taken into our planning and consideration looking at how we could support the health of our community.”
Food access isn’t an issue Enloe can tackle directly, Reed noted, but with events such as the Wellness Expo, the hospital finds opportunities to partner with organizations that directly provide food or facilitate access. CHC, through its CalFresh effort, is case in point.
As a parent, Reed knows first-hand that “healthy eating tends to be more expensive. When we’re trying to eat healthy, we’re not just going out and getting fast food or getting cans, boxes of mac ‘n’ cheese.… I just want people to know there are ways for people to eat healthy,” she added, “even if they are on a budget—budget being both financial and time, because a lot of families are running from here to there and it’s just so hard to sit down as a family to prepare a meal. But there are ways to do that.
“Eating healthy doesn’t have to be hard. It’s something anybody can do, and the benefits to your health are so vast that it’s worth investing in.”
Working families and seniors represent two of the most underserved groups of those eligible for CalFresh. Reed hopes the Wellness Expo will draw them to the CHC booth.
Though CHC isn’t the only avenue for enrolling in CalFresh—county government offices accept applications, and the state has an online benefits portal—Bedore explained “it’s more simplified” for applicants to have trained CHC staff members “work for them and advocate for them versus them trying to find these benefits on their own, fill out the application on their own or deal with the county.”
Not everyone with a food access problem is eligible for CalFresh. Residents outside city limits in all income brackets have issues of proximity to produce, even when they live near farmers. Some aren’t in the vicinity of a farm stand, and smaller convenience stores that service small enclaves don’t offer the range of items available at large grocery stores.
In response, Gruneisen recommends speaking up with the backing of buying power.
“Every individual has a voice,” she said. “Wherever that corner store may be that they’re shopping, and whoever that local market owner is, really reach out: ‘Hey, I’m a customer here, why don’t we have any bananas? Why aren’t there any carrots?’ Lower-priced fruits and vegetable items that they can purchase.
“We are an agricultural-rich county, and it floors me that in some of these locations people don’t even have access to what’s being grown in their backyard.”