In California, every county has its own approach for reaching residents who qualify for CalFresh, commonly known as food stamps.
Five years ago, Yolo County found itself in an unfortunate place. When the California Food Policy Advocates issued their annual report in 2013, Yolo ranked near the bottom of all California counties in terms of how well it was connecting low-income residents to food assistance benefits.
Nearly a third of Californians eligible for food stamps don't receive those benefits. That year Yolo County was less than half.
That changed after county supervisors figured out UC Davis students were a missing piece of the puzzle. Many students who qualified for CalFresh were not enrolled.
As the county team sifted through the reasons behind the gap, they found barrier after barrier for students, according to Nolan Sullivan, director of the CalFresh program for Yolo County.
"Student eligibility for CalFresh is incredibly complicated,” says Sullivan. “Students are one of the few groups that have to meet an exemption just to apply.”
So students have to figure out if they meet one of 10 exemptions to be eligible.
Then there's the CalFresh application itself. Sullivan compares it to a long, confusing tax form.
As the county talked to students, they figured out there was a rumor factor at play as well. Students would hit an obstacle in the screening process, get discouraged and then tell their friends that students can't get food assistance.
In an attempt to turn the situation around, Yolo County hired Code For America to design a user-friendly CalFresh website for students.
They also teamed up with the civic tech non-profit mRelief to create a text messaging platform. Students can use mRelief to get screened for food assistance benefits, submit documents and schedule CalFresh appointments using their mobile devices.
The year after Yolo launched its outreach, CalFresh enrollment among students was at 450. Last year, that number jumped to nearly 3,000 according to Sullivan.
In addition to web and mobile tools, UC Davis students have a human resource now, too. Sullivan credits County Supervisor Don Saylor with pushing forward a plan to fund a full-time CalFresh position on the UC Davis campus.
That job is held by UC Davis graduate Max Vaca. Students can find him in the Basic Needs Center, a one-stop shop for student services.
"Even though (students) may be working, they still don't have enough money to buy groceries,” explains Vaca. “That seems to be shocking in and of itself. But what's more shocking is how common that situation is."
Even if a UC Davis student doesn’t qualify for CalFresh, there are other campus resources for food aid open to all students.
Vaca’s position is the first such role on any UC campus, according to Ruben E. Canedo, director of Strategic Equity Initiatives at the University of California.
Since 2016, Canedo says he’s noticed “exponential growth” in CalFresh applications submitted by each UC campus.
“California counties are realizing how large an opportunity this is in terms of meeting their own targets to increase enrollment in benefits,” Canedo says.
In October, Yolo County will share its CalFresh strategies with other California counties during a conference of welfare directors in Anaheim.
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