Food stamp expansion for low-income elderly and disabled Californians off to rapid start

Sandy Nemec of Carmichael, right, buys a bag of cherries with CalFresh coupons at the farmers’ market at Cesar Chavez Park in Sacramento in May 2017.
Sandy Nemec of Carmichael, right, buys a bag of cherries with CalFresh coupons at the farmers’ market at Cesar Chavez Park in Sacramento in May 2017. Sacramento Bee file

In the first few months of expanding its food stamp program to include more low-income elderly and disabled residents who previously did not qualify, California has been seeing a surge of applications, according to data from the state.

Beginning June 1, elderly and disabled residents who receive federal Supplemental Security Income (SSI) became eligible to enroll in the CalFresh program without getting any of their Social Security benefits decreased.

The expansion is monumental, community groups say, as SSI recipients previously were not able to participate in CalFresh, and instead got only a flat $10 added to their monthly Social Security benefit if they applied for additional benefits for food. Advocates say the flat payment is not enough now as rents and living costs increase rapidly, leaving the beneficiaries with less money each month to spend on food.

The state estimates that by the end of December, six months into the launch of the expansion, it should see about 400,000 SSI recipients enroll in CalFresh, said Adam Weintraub, spokesman for the California Department of Social Services. The department calculates that by the end of July, around 225,000 SSI recipients had already been added to the CalFresh program.

“The initial response to the expanded benefit was tremendous,” Weintraub said.

State officials estimate that in Sacramento County, at least 21,400 and as many as 42,900 SSI recipients will enroll in CalFresh, according to Weintraub. The county said that from May up until Wednesday, 16,466 SSI recipients have applied and 14,485 have been approved.

The surge of early applications from SSI recipients comes against the backdrop of the state’s long-term struggle with getting eligible California residents to enroll in the food stamp program.

The Fresno Bee and Cal Matters reported last week that in 2016, the state enrolled 72 percent of eligible residents in CalFresh, the fifth lowest rate of food stamp enrollment in the nation. They found that counties lack state funding and are understaffed in offices that administer the program.

The state has also faced difficulties that apply to increasing participation for public benefits programs in general, said Andrew Cheyne, director of government affairs at the California Association of Food Banks. “The chilling effect from public charge and the fear it creates has made it difficult for any campaign to encourage people who are eligible to apply for public benefits like CalFresh,” he said.

To promote the recent expansion to SSI recipients, the state has pursued various measures, according to Weintraub. The Department of Social Services mailed out more than 1 million postcards to SSI recipients starting in May, aired radio public service announcements in English and Spanish, and began allowing people to apply over the phone, Weintraub said.

“Our food banks …were inundated with calls requesting applications as a result of the (state’s) postcard,” Cheyne said.

Local community groups also promoted the change.

Lorena Carrazna, the CalFresh outreach manager at Sacramento Food Bank & Family Services, said her team began preparing for the expansion last November.

“This is a new demographic that we are serving,” she said, and so her team faced several initial challenges.

The type size on the intake form was too small for many elderly residents to read, and so her team began allocating more time to assist them, Carranza said. Many seniors couldn’t drive, so her team began offering home visitation services.

Her team also encountered language barriers, particularly among Asian residents, she said. Many people that her team reached out to spoke only Chinese, so they found volunteers to help translate.

Their efforts appeared to pay off when the expansion went into effect.

“June was super busy,” Carranza said. “Oh my goodness, it was an amazing month.”

Though the state has seen many early applications, it still faces barriers to getting more people enrolled.

Paula Lomazzi, executive director of Sacramento Homeless Organizing Committee, said, “In our community, there are rumors about people who applied and only got $10 (per month) and didn’t seem worth their while to go through all the paperwork which is sometimes difficult for people.”

Weintraub said that CalFresh benefits on average for elderly and disabled residents amount to $105 to $110 per month.

Even then, Carranza said, part of her team’s work is persuading people that what initially seems like a small sum of CalFresh money can amount to a substantial amount of food. She noted that many farmers markets that partner with CalFresh will match the money that CalFresh beneficiaries spend, meaning the beneficiaries get double the amount of produce they pay for.

“For some of them, (CalFresh) is the difference between life and death,” Carranza said.

Carranza recently assisted an elderly woman who is terminally ill, she said. “The best thing she can do is just to stay healthy and keep healthy, so CalFresh for her really helps her live longer.”

“I know that for some, $15 might not make a difference,” Carranza continued, “but for a lot of people (enrolled in CalFresh) it makes such a big difference.”

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Elaine Chen, from the University of Chicago, is a local news reporter for The Sacramento Bee. She grew up in the Bay Area and later in Beijing, China.