By: Tia Anzellotti and Jennifer Tracy / San Diego Hunger Coalition
After the second piece on Food Stamps (OB Rag blog – Lane Tobias 03/06/09) was published, several items came to light regarding steps that are being taken to address some of the barriers that those in need face when applying. We would like to talk about those changes and to give suggestions about additional steps that we can all take to streamline the process.
As has been stated, the County of San Diego, Health and Human Services Agency (HHSA), is responsible for administering the Food Stamp Program. They have been working in partnership with various community based organizations for several years to make the application process more “client – friendly” while maintaining program integrity.
The goal of the groups working to ensure that all eligible people can access the Food Stamp Program is twofold. First, to reframe the program as what it is — a nutrition program, not a welfare program. Second, to make it clear that the Food Stamp Program is an economic stimulus for the entire community since benefits are generally spent immediately when received and every $5 in new Food Stamp benefits generates over $9 in overall economic activity. Both of these things are essential as we face an obesity epidemic that disproportionately impacts low-income people and a financial crisis that is making it even harder for households to make ends meet.
To achieve this goal, HHSA is going through a “Business Re-engineering Process” to modernize processes, establish better customer service, reduce wait and processing times, and streamline the application process. Changes include utilizing technology so staff can work smarter and more efficiently, instituting a contact center where people can call to ask questions about applying, the status of an application, reporting, etc, and conducting training and “in-reach” with staff to ensure that all clients are treated with dignity and respect. Additionally, HHSA is in the process of developing a Food Stamp Plan that will formalize their commitment to making significant, positive changes to how the program is administered.
At the state level, there are several regulations that add red tape to the Food Stamp Program in the name of fraud prevention. This is where concerned San Diegans can lend their voices to the debate. For example, California is one of only 3 states that force all adult members of Food Stamp households to be fingerprinted. This stigmatizes families trying to put food on the table and is extremely costly to the state. At this time of personal and statewide financial crises, it is especially ridiculous to continue with this practice. Additionally, 47 other states have found alternative, effective ways to protect program integrity. California’s fraud rate is no lower than those utilizing these other methods. In fact, nationwide, the fraud rate for Food Stamps is less than 2%. Legislation has been introduced in Sacramento for several years to do away with fingerprinting, but has never been passed. This time, write your state legislators and ask them to pass SB 718 to get rid of this unnecessary and expensive barrier.
We all know that San Diego has a long way to go to reach everyone who is eligible for Food Stamps. There is, however, hope, as government entities, community-based organizations, and concerned San Diegans work together to raise concerns and make real change. We all have the same goal – to make sure that no one has to go to bed hungry – and increasing Food Stamp participation rates will go a long way towards achieving that goal.