Help get California’s“Wacky” USDA food stamps waiver denied and improve access to healthy food for all

by on July 27, 2009 · 4 comments

in California, Civil Rights, Economy, Health, San Diego

A welcomed sight for those who have food stamps.

In previous articles about food stamps, I touched upon some of the barriers to food stamps eligibility that inevitably makes San Diego one of the hardest places in the U.S. to receive food stamps – even if you fall within the income and eligibility guidelines.

While most of those barriers continue to present problems to applicants, there are local initiatives that have helped pass important legislation to start eliminating them. One of the barriers still in existence, the quarterly “household changes” report, is unique to California in that the state has to get a special waiver from the USDA to implement it. Fortunately, food policy groups, social service organizations, and advocacy groups are working to try and get the USDA to deny the waiver and make food stamps accessible to Californians at a crucial time.

Now that the recession has dragged on, unemployment has risen, and more and more people have begun applying for food stamps, the wait to hear from an eligibility worker for even an initial interview has slowly begun to get longer.

Part of the problem could lie in the budget cuts that have resulted in layoffs at County Health and Human Services offices, shrinking staff that deals with food stamps. Add that to the increase in applicants, and you might understand why it would take a case worker a little bit longer to get in contact with potential recipients. While this is no excuse, I would advise anyone applying for food stamps to expect to wait at least three weeks before being contacted after submitting an application.

Longer waits can be frustrating, but as local governments adjust to the economic repercussions of budget cuts, we should at least be patient with the understaffed and overworked people trying to make the best of the situation. The truth is that the eligibility workers don’t make the rules – political bureaucrats do.

As mentioned above, policy initiatives have paved the way for systemic change in the way California administers food stamps. The most telling was in the passing of AB 433, which eliminates the dreaded “assets test” for households with children. The “assets test” is a part of the food stamps application process that invades personal privacy to determine what assets applicants have at their disposal.

For example, under the assets test, having more than $2,000 dollars in your bank account at the time of registration automatically disqualifies you from food stamps eligibility ($3,000 if a household has a member over 60). While AB 433 only covers households with children (and thusly, single applicants or couples still have to abide) the passage of this bill has slowly begun to carve a less burdensome process for the future. County offices could begin implementing the rules as early as July 1, 2009 and MUST implement them by January 1, 2010. No word yet on whether or not San Diego County has begun, but the hope is that they will not wait until next January to do so.

With that in mind, the state legislature recently squashed another bill, AB 1057, which would modernize the food stamp verification process and simplify the quarterly reporting process. Quarterly reporting is a waste of time, resources, and money and is an invasive way to undermine the whole point of the program in the first place. While the bill didn’t pass, there is a petition being circulated by the California Food Policy Initiative that will attempt to simplify reporting household changes by urging the USDA (which administers food stamps) to deny California a waiver that allows for this quarterly reporting instead of USDA recommended practices.

The USDA’s suggested verification process, utilized by every other state except Minnesota (that makes 48, for those who are old enough to remember when Alaska and Hawaii were not part of the union, or aren’t sure if Texas seceded yet) involves recipients reporting income change only if it pushes them outside of income eligibility, and in many cases requires only a short report every six months or once a year. While some “logical” people (i.e. bureacrats) might think that allowing someone to receive food stamps without truly monitoring them could make it easier to fraudulently incur assistance, we should look at the reality of the situation. Current practices have made it so that in San Diego County, only about 30% of eligible folks actually receive food stamps.

Much of the reason for this lies in the inordinate invasiveness of the process – a process that turns people off to the point where they would rather go hungry then have to visit an eligibility worker every month or so and jump through hoops that are both time consuming and in most cases, embarrassing. Additionally, eliminating the added administrative work brought on by unnecessary recipient reports, the County and State government would save tons of money that could be used to help bridge the ridiculous $26+ billion dollar gap facing the state. While the USDA inevitably denies or accepts the waiver, it is the State of California that has to foot the bill.

As mentioned before, the California Food Policy Initiative (an advocacy group that has helped to implement important changes in food access for California’s most vulnerable) is now circulating a petition to try and urge the USDA to deny this waiver for the upcoming year. By visiting this petition page and signing your name on to the letter, you are helping to secure fresh and healthy food for all Californians.

If you do not qualify for food stamps due to the income guidelines or maybe you are a recipient of SSI, there are other resources for food that are open to anyone in need of fresh and healthy food. Contact the San Diego Food Bank by visiting their website and ask about the many food distributions and healthy food initiatives around San Diego County. Also, check out Golden Share Foods (in my opinion, the most accessible food programs in the area, and open to anyone regardless of income).

Let us not forget that access to healthy food is a human right, not a privilege. It is a shame that people go hungry every night when in fact we live in a state known for producing some of the best produce and livestock in the world. By signing on to this petition, you are doing your part to ensure that less people will go hungry on a daily basis.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar mr fresh July 27, 2009 at 2:40 pm

be sure to click on the petition mentioned in this story and sign it!

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avatar Molly July 28, 2009 at 7:05 am

Thanks Lane. This is important shit to know for those on the edge.

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avatar Sunshine July 28, 2009 at 7:48 am

Given the time it takes to actually process an application for food stamps, the 3 weeks or so mentioned that one must wait for a food stamp worker to even get in contact with an applicant, a nice garden could be started in one’s yard or patio (yes, plenty of fresh veges will grow in pots on a patio). By the time the application is approved, if they get approved at all, the applicant will then have fresh, organic produce to suppliment all the crappy processed foods allowed by the food stamp card at the store.

Hey, it’s something to do while waiting around for the government to provide for those in need, right?

Is the state of CA issuing IOU’s to food stamp recipents yet?

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avatar lane tobias July 28, 2009 at 8:24 am

well there are two misconceptions in your comment, Sunshine. The first is that food stamps only gets you crap food. The fact of the matter is that EBT is accepted at just about every supermarket in America now. You can use your food stamps at Trader Joe’s, Von’s, basically all the premium markets. People’s accepts EBT as well. So in actuality, food stamps allows people on the fringe access to healthy food. Also, the Goldenshare program listed above, which has no income guidelines or really any requirements at all, accepts EBT online or over the phone.

The other misconception is that the state pays for food stamps. It doesn’t. The USDA manages the food stamps program, and that is why it is so disheartening that California makes it such a process to get them. The only costs the state incurs are for administration of the program. That is why food policy advocates don’t understand why California, the most cash strapped state in the country, continues to monitor the program more closely than ANY OTHER state. If California backed off, it would save the Health and Human Services offices in each County a boatload of money. How backwards is that?

Anyway, here’s a link to more info about the federal food stamps program (now called SNAP). One interesting fact is that the stimulus package injected about 2 billion dollars more into SNAP, so in states like California where a good percentage of people who qualify dont receive food stamps, we are missing out on funding that could really help that is instead going elsewhere.

http://www.frac.org/html/federal_food_programs/programs/fsp.html

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