More Sacramentans using California’s food-stamp program

Sacramentans sign up for food stamps at a higher clip—but poor participation rates cost region hundreds of millions

This story was funded by a grant from the Sierra Health Foundation to do independent reporting on the topic of food access in California.
Read the California Food Policy Advocates’ report and more at

Enrollment in the state’s food-stamp program is woeful. But a new report shows that the numbers are trending upward—and that Sacramento is leading the charge.

Low-income county residents who take advantage of CalFresh, or the program formerly known as food stamps, is finally on the rise after years of low participation. Still, a new report by California Food Policy Advocates notes that barely more than half of Californians eligible for food stamps sign up. And some 81,000 Sacramentans who qualify still haven’t registered.

In fact, a little more than half of all eligible Californians participate in CalFresh. This means the program, which is federally funded and county administered, fails to reach 3.5 million state residents for nutritional assistance.

For Sacramento County, two-thirds of those eligible, or 178,000 people, used CalFresh in 2010, according to the CFPA. But another one-third did not receive benefits but could have.

Edith Martinez, who oversees food-stamps outreach in the area and is program manager at the River City Food Bank in Midtown, says there are a lot of misconceptions about the program.

“In assisting low-income working households through the application process,” she explained, “I’ve had to address some of the myths.” For instance, she noted that “many people don’t know that they can work and still be eligible for CalFresh.”

That’s a loss nutritionally. And it’s also a fiscal loss for Sacramento County and California: Full-participation in CalFresh would bring $4.9 billion in federal funds each year to the state economy.

Of this $4.9 billion, an additional $109 million would flow to Sacramento County, which ranks fifth among 58 counties in CalFresh utilization. The extra $109 million in CalFresh benefits would, in turn, reap an estimated $195 million increase in annual Sacramento County’s economic activity, according to the CFPA.

This activity includes an estimated annual increase of sales-tax revenue of $736,000 for Sacramento.

Residents eligible for CalFresh include a family of four with income of $22,350 a year. CalFresh recipients may not participate in the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations or receive Supplemental Security Income.

In the meantime, CalFresh modernization efforts are under way. Assembly Bill 6, the CalFresh Act of 2011, was signed by Gov. Jerry Brown last October and removes the fingerprinting requirement for CalFresh applicants and also replaces a quarterly reporting system with one that is semi-annual.

Republican state Sen. Bob Dutton, however, wants to turn back the clock and repeal this new law, arguing that CalFresh is rife with fraud and waste and will only get worse without fingerprinting. He introduced a bill last week that would reinstate the requirement.

Further, health-care reform in 2014 will increase the number of people income eligible for Medi-Cal, said Tia Shimada, nutrition advocate with the CFPA. This will allow people to sign up for Medi-Cal (Medicaid in the Golden State) and CalFresh at the same time, as both federally funded programs have similar application questions.

In July, the Social Security Administration will focus on streamlining the enrollment of low-income seniors in CalFresh. According to Martinez, there are more than 7,000 people receiving CalFresh benefits in Sacramento County who are elderly, disabled or homeless.

“CalFresh is especially important for populations who do not always have the means to access food,” Martinez reminded.