Seeking solutions for hungry in California

Overly complicated food-stamps system robs state of $4 billion

Want to see if you are one of the many eligible Californians not yet enrolled for CalFresh? Visit to check eligibility or apply online. Jeff vonKaenel is the president, CEO and majority owner of the News & Review newspapers in Sacramento, Chico and Reno. His column, Greenlight, appears weekly in this space.

Kevin Concannon, under secretary at the United States Department of Agriculture, has a simple goal: No one goes hungry in America.

While others may have similar ideas, Concannon oversees the $100 billion Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly known as the food-stamps program, which feeds one in four Americans. In California, it is called CalFresh. And in California, we have made a mess of it. Big time.

We, the inhabitants of the Golden State, are Concannon’s problem children. Due to an inefficient and overly complicated system, only about half of the California residents eligible for CalFresh have signed up. This is one of the worst records in the country. There are other states with 90 percent of their eligible residents enrolled, at an administrative cost of only $20 per month each, while California’s lousy record is still costing us three times as much in administrative costs.

Compared to the rest of California, Sacramento County does a bit better, with roughly 72 percent of eligible residents enrolled. The other counties in our region—Yolo, Sutter, El Dorado and Nevada—are closer to the state average, with only around 50 percent of eligible residents signed up. According to California Food Policy Advocates, there are about 110,000 Sacramento-area residents who are eligible for food stamps, but not enrolled. If we could enroll them all, it would bring $250 million a year in aid into our region. Yes, that’s $250 million we are leaving on the table.

Statewide, the total is $4 billion. Imagine what a difference this money could make in our state. But there is hope on the horizon. The state recently passed Assembly Bill 6, which removes the fingerprinting requirement. Only one other state now requires fingerprinting: Arizona.

Here in Sacramento we have a group of elected officials, government employees, food-bank managers and private-sector citizens working on the problem. Concannon met with us at lunch recently to tell us about what is happening at the federal level, and to hear what we are doing here in Sacramento.

When asked about solutions, Concannon mentioned Florida. There, despite losing a significant number of state workers to budget cuts, outreach from nonprofits and faith groups helped the state sign up an additional million residents. We hope to do something similar here.

Kevin Concannon is an incredible public servant. One minute, he can easily rattle off the statistics, and the next minute he can talk about how the SNAP has meant that a senior citizen no longer needs to choose between food and medicine, and how a woman whose husband is serving oversees can now feed her young children. It was a joy to break bread with this man. And, in a way, one out of every four Americans will be breaking bread with him tonight.