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Applying for food aid has gotten easier, but CalFresh is still under used

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  • Drew Hyland
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Back in 2007, when Daniele Nelson was just 18 and struggling to get by on her own, a friend urged her to try to get on food stamps.

"It was a pain going down there and supplying documents," Nelson recalled. She had to get fingerprinted, and bring a photo ID, her Social Security card, pay stubs, rent receipts and utility bills.

But after that initial hassle, she said, it's been easy -- and essential.

"My family would not be able to eat or survive without it," she said. "We would starve."

Although Nelson works full-time as a receptionist at Kokotat, she has two little ones now, ages 3 years and 6 months, and her income barely covers the bills. When she made $1,600 a month in her last job, the federal program gave her an extra $200 monthly for food, and she's waiting to hear what the new amount will be now that she's at Kokotat.

Since Nelson first applied, it's gotten easier to get food aid, and the program, now recast as CalFresh, is soon going to get easier yet.

That could help many more people than just the recipients -- hungry kids affect their classmates and their schools, and they don't grow up as healthy, a problem that eventually touches us all.

Even with improvements, though, fewer than half of the people eligible for food stamps in Humboldt County were actually getting them in 2009, according to the California Food Policy Advocates group. In its report, "Lost Dollars, Empty Plates," the group found that about 10,000 people were participating in CalFresh in Humboldt, but over 15,000 income-eligible residents were not, which meant the county was missing out in over $28 million worth of economic activity.

The county itself doesn't know whether that estimate is a low one or a high one. It doesn't try to calculate how many people are eligible for food aid. Nonetheless, no one disputes the fact that many eligible people aren't getting help, said Heather Muller, Humboldt County Public Education Officer.

Theories abound as to why, especially in hard times, people would refuse a potential source of help. The stigma of public assistance? The bureaucratic hurdles? Simple ignorance that aid is available?

All of the above, say people who know the programs well.

Gathering the necessary paperwork remains an oft-cited hurdle "We try to help make sure they know what to bring in, but we lose so many people," said Donna Wheeler, deputy director of the social services branch of county's Department of Health and Human Services.

Look at how hard it is for a typically busy person to know where all their paperwork is, added Heather Muller, Humboldt County Public Education Officer. "Throw in poverty -- this is where it falls apart."

Just how badly it falls apart is anyone's guess. The county doesn't have a system in place to track how many people start filling out applications but don't finish.

CalFresh benefits aren't tremendous -- the average household gets about $200 per month -- so sometimes, would-be applicants may decide the amount isn't worth the hassle.

Add to that the trepidation of sacrificing self-reliance for government help. For some, eating nothing seems better than swallowing your pride.

With all that in mind, county officials have been working since 2009 to try to increase participation. That's when an earlier Food Policy Advocates report made headlines, saying many who qualified for food stamps were not getting them.

Since then, the county has gotten applications and information out to more people, and has held more nutrition workshops and classes to try to reduce the stigma.

The state has also helped, dropping its fingerprinting requirement beginning this year, and easing financial restrictions.

Partly as a result of those and other changes, Humboldt County participation in the program has surged, from 4,934 people in May 2008 to 7,918 people in September 2011.

The number of people who need help has likely gone up, too. In 2008, nearly 20,700 Humboldt County residents were income-eligible for CalFresh, and in 2009 that had increased to 25,222, according to the food policy group.

Statistics only tell part of the story. Thanks to the pot-based economy, plenty of people here lack an income on paper but have enough money for food. They were no doubted counted in the food policy study, but nobody is arguing that they need help from CalFresh.

For Wheeler and her staff, the goal remains the same: get more food and nutrition to eligible Humboldt County residents. Her department has joined forces with other agencies and nonprofits, including the Public Health Department, Job Market and Food for People. Together, they do everything from offering cooking workshops at the North Coast Co-op to helping people apply without having to travel into the Koster Street office in Eureka.

An online application, "C4Yourself" (myfoodstamps.org) lets people apply from home or anywhere with Internet service, Wheeler said. "We're moving toward people not having to come in, to being able to have community-based organizations helping people apply, to having private offices in businesses for interviews. ... We want to be customer-friendly."

It's working. Food for People and other groups that help people with CalFresh applications now are accounting for more than 10 percent of new applicants. On top of that, close to another 10 percent of new applications are coming in electronically, though the online program.

Changing the focus from public assistance ("food stamps") to nutrition ("CalFresh") helps with the stigma, said Muller. Along with grocery stores, CalFresh is accepted at most farmers' markets in Humboldt. Participants can even buy seeds, helping set them up for greater food security in the long run.

Potentially even more profound is the state's changed policy regarding resource limitations. Before February 2011, applicants weren't "poor enough" to receive assistance until their bank accounts plus any assets dropped below $2,000 total. Now, limits to the amount of property you can own, the value of your car or how much money you can have in the bank have been lifted. In an era of high unemployment, the new philosophy is, "If you've just lost your job, we don't want you to have to take all your savings just to eat," Wheeler said.

The goal -- getting help to those who need it -- is especially critical for children. About 40 percent of Humboldt residents on CalFresh are under 18, and the problem of childhood hunger ripples out far beyond individual families. A kid who hasn't had a good breakfast can have trouble in school, said Public Health Branch Director Susan Buckley. If that hungry child acts out in class or stays home sick, that can disrupt classmates and hurt the school, which loses money for each absence. Children who don't get enough nourishment grow more slowly. Their brains don't develop fully. They're more likely to get sick. They can't concentrate. They might become aggressive or hyperactive.

Further, the effects of childhood hunger linger into adulthood. Children who went hungry at least once in their lives were 2½ times more likely to have poor overall health 10 to 15 years later than those who never had to go without food, according to a 2010 study. In it, researchers at the National Cancer Institute and the University of Calgary tracked children from birth to 21 years old, in one of the first long-term studies on the effects of hunger on general health.

That's part of why Humboldt County's public health branch is making sure its workers refer people to CalFresh. "It's a matter of social justice," Buckley said. "As a society, food is a minimal guarantee."

Nelson, a Humboldt native and current Eureka resident, hasn't ever had that guarantee, despite working since in her teens.

She struck out on on her own at 16, opting to leave home due to what she termed a "really rough life." She figured she could do better on her own -- and she has, but not without plugging into social services, including CalFresh. "It's a good program with a great cause," Nelson said, and considering what it provides, not really all that difficult to use.

If people are too embarrassed to apply, she said, "they need to get over themselves," and ignore other people's negativity.

"Do whatever you can do to get help," she advised. "This economy is horrible. No matter how hard some people work, they can't get ahead."

Reporting for this article was supported in part by a grant from the nonprofit Sierra Health Foundation for independent reporting on food access.

 

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