Food eligibility gap

SN&R asks a top federal official why CalFresh serves just half of those it could

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While in Washington, D.C., for the Sacramento Metro Chamber’s Cap-to-Cap visit, SN&R’s CEO Jeff vonKaenel was able to get an interview with a national figure in the world of food and agriculture. Here’s an excerpt from his chat with Kevin Concannon, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s undersecretary for food, nutrition and consumer services, regarding California and its CalFresh program.

Can you talk about your vision of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program?

Well, SNAP—often known as food stamps—is the base line, the most important of the feeding programs the United States that operates for low-income people. We operate 15 federally sponsored feeding programs, all of which are operated at the local level by state governments. And these days the SNAP program is serving just in excess of 44 million Americans—and half of that number is children. And that 44 million represents about 70 percent of those who are eligible, because the eligible criteria are set federally … and is 100 percent federally paid. The administering costs of administering the program are shared between the state and the federal government, and on that front, California, where the program is now called CalFresh, has the highest administrative costs in the country.

I could live with that if it was the best operated program in the country, but it isn’t. … The CalFresh program is serving just in excess of half of those who are eligible, somewhere around 52 to 53 percent, where the national average, which is brought down by California, is 70 percent. … And among the largest states—Texas, Illinois, Florida, Michigan—California has the lowest rate of participation in the country. There are reasons for that, it’s not accidental.

What are those reasons?

First, California creates a whole bunch of administrative barriers for people, and they’re costly. It’s the only state in the country, for example, where you have to report your income quarterly, every three months. … That’s why the monthly administrative costs per case in California are more than $80 per case. The national average, and that’s factoring in all states including California, is $30.

So we’re spending almost three times more?

Yes. Another reason is that California is one of only three states in the country—including Texas and Arizona—that fingerprint people. And that’s everybody in the household. Well, the state argues that this is intended to prevent fraud. But California’s own inspector general years ago said there’s no evidence that it’s any more successful in preventing fraud than any other far less costly practices that all the rest of the states in the country employ.

What’s the result—in terms of real people—of the ineligible not getting food stamps?

Seniors are now underserved. Recently unemployed or underemployed people are now underserved. A lot of people in this economy are only getting so many hours a week, and they may think, “Gee, I’m not eligible because I’m earning some income.” No, if your income based on household size still doesn’t get you above 130 percent of the federal poverty level, which is pretty lean, you would still be eligible. And then the third group is Hispanics. You have to be a legal resident of the U.S. or you have to be a legal citizen, so you can’t be undocumented to be on the CalFresh program or the food-stamp program anywhere in the country. But if I say to you that we have to fingerprint you, even if your two children were born in the U.S., they are U.S. citizens and are eligible for this program based on household income … but every adult in the household has to be finger imaged? Well, that dissuades a lot of people.

Let’s talk about nutrition. What’s happening in terms of the health issues related to SNAP?

Well, we’re promoting a number of things at the federal level. We’re promoting better access for SNAP recipients to farmers markets. You know, the CalFresh program operates now with electronic benefits [transfer] cards, EBT cards, all across the country. And the change from those old paper coupons to the electronic card is like moving into electrification in a fourth world country or something. But an unintended consequence of that was that few of the 6,000 farmers markets—that’s the number across the country, just slightly more than 6,000 farmers markets—1,500 of them have electrification, or they have those wireless devices to be able to handle a Visa card or a MasterCard or whatnot.

So we’ve been on a mission to promote access to farmers markets as a way of encouraging people to eat healthier. And much of the time those foods are locally grown. And they’re less processed food, because one of our major problems that we have in the country is, as Americans, we eat more processed food than any other country in the world. … So teaming up with places like Wholesome Wave but also some of the health foundations, for example Kaiser Permanente, has in many cases added to—we have several programs called vouchers for pregnant women, farmers market vouchers. We also have a voucher program for senior citizens, again where they can take a voucher and go to a farmers market monthly. And we have been promoting that, two aspects of that. One is that you’ll eat healthier. But two, it helps sustainable agriculture locally.