Fresh and flawed: Low nutrition-assistance enrollment costs Sacramento County millions

Continued inability to sign up qualified residents for CalFresh leaves $153 million on the table, report says

This is an extended version of a story that ran in the July 7, 2016, issue.

About 80,000 Sacramento County residents are not utilizing a federally-funded nutrition program—and it’s costing the local economy millions of dollars, according to an October study from California Food Policy Advocates.

The study, titled “Lost Dollars, Empty Plates,” argues that the county lost $153 million in economic activity because of its low enrollment in CalFresh, which is the state’s incarnation of the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

And it’s still losing money.

Sacramento County ranked ninth in the state when it came to its residents using CalFresh, which provides financial assistance to those with inadequate or limited access to food. The county’s CalFresh enrollment figures dropped just over 1 percent this year, from 254,836 participants in May 2015 to 251,928 participants this May, according to county spokeswoman Chris Andis. Andis surmised that the drop could be due to the rising employment rates in Sacramento.

But CalFresh has long been underutilized, and Sacramento County is only following in its state’s footsteps.

According to U.S. Department of Agriculture data, California ranks second to last in the nation for participation in SNAP.

“California has a very low participation rate among seniors,” said one of the study’s coauthors, Jared Call, the managing nutrition policy advocate at California Food Policy Advocates.

Andis acknowledged there are many who don’t access CalFresh despite qualifying. Seniors, students, undocumented parents and people who live in households with incomes technically above the federal poverty level often do not seek out the nutrition program, she says.

People’s reluctance to avail themselves of CalFresh often comes down to the embarrassment of asking for help and the fear that strings are attached, said Lorenza Carranza, the CalFresh outreach manager at Sacramento Food Bank and Family Services.

“It seems that there is a stigma around the program and we are really trying to do our best” to erase it, she said.

According to Carranza, unemployed parents are reticent to reach out for government assistance. Undocumented parents face the added fear that enrolling their children in CalFresh will result in deportation, while others fear that if they access the benefits, they will owe money to the government.

(The state offers assistance to undocumented residents through the separate California Food Assistance Program, which is state-funded rather than federally funded. The program was created after President Bill Clinton’s 1996 welfare reform discontinued food stamps for undocumented residents.)

Whatever the circumstance, many don’t turn to CalFresh until they’ve exhausted all their resources.

Carranza remembers working with a woman in her late 60s who had been surviving on a box of cereal for a week. The woman had just gotten a job, but used her last $5 to get to work and couldn’t afford food. “Every single day we hear heartbreaking stories from clients,” she said.

CalFresh participants can spend their assistance at local farmers markets, many of which offer what’s called “market match,” where, for every 10 CalFresh dollars individuals spend, they receive an extra 10 CalFresh dollars to spend at farmers markets. Some markets offer this incentive for up to 20 CalFresh dollars.

The incentive, designed to capitalize on Sacramento’s reputation as the farm-to-fork capital, is aimed at encouraging CalFresh recipients to purchase local, seasonal ingredients, which are considered more nutritional. But it may also appeal to immigrants who feel more at home in a market setting than at a grocery store, said Davida Douglas, executive director of Alchemist CDC, a nonprofit that has paved the way for CalFresh payment processing at local farmers’ markets.

Yolo County added a new one just last month.

On June 20, the West Sacramento Urban Farm Stand opened up at the corner of the city’s 5th and C streets. The stand offers market match.

While people work on expanding CalFresh’s purchasing power, nutrition policy advocate Call would like to see the state make it easier to sign up, by combining the application processes for Medi-Cal insurance and CalFresh.

“One of the opportunities that we are looking to take advantage of right now is that the tremendous success that California has had with enrolling people in Medi-Cal and enrolling low income folks in Medi-Cal,” he said. “There is tremendous overlap between the eligibility requirements between Medi-Cal and CalFresh, and we keep trying to think of ways to use that data that is gathered during Medi-Cal enrollment and transfer that paperlessly and electronically into CalFresh applications.”

Andis said the Sacramento County Department of Human Assistance is working with nonprofits like the Sacramento Food Bank to erase barriers to the program.

But signing up for CalFresh might not be as big of a problem as keeping it, said Grace Loescher, the youth development director at Tubman House, an 18-month housing program for homeless families.

CalFresh is easier to apply for than other systems, Loescher explained in an email. But once you’re on CalFresh, “Your money will randomly get shut off, it’s impossible to get a hold of your worker, by the time you do—you’ve been reassigned to another worker,” she wrote. “But the initial sign-up is no big deal.”