Less than half of eligible Marin residents use food stamps, study shows

03/12/2014

Marin County is contending with a sizable gap in the number of people who qualify for food stamps but have not enrolled, with the fourth lowest percentage of sign-ups among the state’s 58 counties, according to a report by a hunger advocacy group.

Eligibility for CalFresh, the state program that administers federal nutrition benefits from the Department of Agriculture, is calculated based on income and costs like rent, utilities, medical expenses and child care. 

According to California Food Policy Advocates, only 42.7 percent of eligible Marin residents are estimated to have enrolled. If the program reached all eligible county residents, new participants could receive $17.2 million in benefits and the county would generate $30.8 million in additional economic activity, the group estimates.

The numbers may not reflect a large population of seniors who receive Social Security or undocumented immigrants who are ineligible, said Martin Graff, program manager at Health and Human Services. His department must also overcome a pervasive stigma that has only increased in recent months as they implement a three-year plan to boost numbers.

As of last month, Marin issues benefits to nearly 8,500 individuals in 5,000 households, county officials said. The average person receives $150.21 each month, which translates to a little over $5 a day, or enough for a loaf of bread and a half-gallon of milk. The benefits can be used like a debit card—no longer actual stamps—to purchase food items from at a least five West Marin stores and the Point Reyes Farmers Market.

After the 2008 financial crash and the recession, a growing number of families have been struggling to make ends meet, seeking help with rent and utility bills, said Socorro Romo, the manager at West Marin Community Resource Center. The nonprofit offers that aid and also distributes about 1,500 pounds of food each week to dozens of families.

“They’re having a hard time,” Ms. Romo said. “I was working with one client yesterday who said I haven’t been able to get my groceries because I’m so short on money.”

The county, too, has seen a dramatic increase in traffic to their offices over the last few years, Mr. Graff said. He is trying to reach more people by streamlining the application process—an in-person interview is no longer needed—and dispelling myths about the program.

But with his staff hard-pressed for time as they administer the expansion of health care under the Affordable Care Act, Mr. Graff said outreach efforts fell short of the county’s goal of 1,000 sign-ups last year. They did lead to a few hundred new clients, he said.

A primary challenge is simply the lack of awareness that one is eligible, said Ronna Buccelli, the county’s eligibility program manager. “People just don’t know,” she said. “When I was younger, before I started working here, I might have been eligible for food stamps, but I just didn’t have a concept of it, that it was available to me.”

A stigma exemplified by recent debate over the farm bill, which cut $8.6 billion in benefits, also discourages enrollment, Mr. Graff said, with politicians attacking food stamps for being too expensive and for encouraging unemployment. Before a House vote last year, for example, one Tennessee Republican said, “The one who is unwilling to work shall not eat,” quoting the Bible.

“It’s especially hard for a group that is already feeling less-than to be seen as a drain on the public,” Mr. Graff said. A feeling of embarrassment may be even greater in Marin, where the average salary is exceptionally high. “But this is not a welfare program. It’s a food and nutrition program,” he said.

 

If you or someone you know may not have enough money to put food on the table, you can apply for benefits at www.marinhhs.org/calfresh-snap, visit the county’s offices at 100 6th Street or call (415) 473.4456. You can also visit the West Marin Community Resource Center at 11431 State Route One, Suite 16, or call them at (415) 663.8361.