Six million Californians every day face hunger or the fear of going hungry. California’s CalFresh – our State’s name for the federal food stamp program — is a critical support for many of those facing hunger, providing an average of $330 per household per month for groceries.
However, our State’s historically low participation rate – among the worst in the nation, according to the USDA — means that over 3.2 million people are not receiving the $3.5 billion in federal benefits for which they qualify for food. This low rate of participation also means that California is losing $6.3 billion in economic activity that CalFresh usage could generate for our state and, in particular, our food and agriculture sectors.1 California also pays among the highest administrative costs in the country, according to the USDA; options to increase cost-effectiveness without compromising service deserve careful consideration.
Recent research has put a spotlight on California’s poor participation rate and some of the solutions urgently needed, including statewide standards for simpler program rules, modern customer service, and connections to health coverage
1) Create Statewide Policies & Processes to Guarantee Equal and Excellent Access to Nutrition Benefits in All Counties. California could adopt and implement uniform statewide policies and procedures that create high quality experiences for participants in all counties. These standards could be built on leading counties’ (and other states’) best practices, such as same day service. In some cases, state and federal rules must be simplified and aligned. Not only will these standards better serve customers; they can also bring more federal dollars into the state and potentially result in additional cost savings. By contrast, “realigning” CalFresh in such a way as to allow for more local variation in customer service is not best for individual consumers or the overall state participation rate.
2) Integrate with Health Care Reform to Reach All Consumers Eligible for Both Health and Nutrition Assistance. California could take advantage of the one-time unique opportunity to connect CalFresh with the recently enacted Affordable Care Act (ACA), by leveraging new funds, technology, and processes to ensure dual participation in both health and nutrition by all qualified consumers.
3) Modernize Operations to Improve Service and Participation. California could combine clear participation goals, business process changes, technology, data analysis, and culture change to deliver “same day service” to the majority of CalFresh consumers.