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How Are Low-Income San Diegans Faring This Holiday Season?


Senior Metro Reporter Alison St. John joins us for an update on food stamp participation in San Diego. And, the chairman of the San Diego Food Bank joins us to talk about the needs of low-income San Diegans during the holiday season.

Senior Metro Reporter Alison St. John joins us for an update on food stamp participation in San Diego. And, the chairman of the San Diego Food Bank joins us to talk about the needs of low-income San Diegans during the holiday season.


Alison St. John, senior metro reporter for KPBS News.

Mitch Mitchell, chairman of the San Diego Food Bank.

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This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, You're listening to These Days on KPBS. Over recent months here on These Days, we've heard the stories of people in San Diego who never thought they'd need help buying food. And they found themselves lining up at a food bank or signing up for food stamps. Advocates for food assistance have been trying to make sure that the application gets easier for people who need help. A state wide agency has released a snapshot of which cities and counties in California are taking full advantage of the food stamp program. KPBS metro reporter Alison St. John is here to tell us about the findings. Good morning Alison.

ALISON ST. JOHN: Good morning, Maureen.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I'd also like to welcome Mitch Mitchell from the San Diego food basic. Good morning, Mitch.

MITCH MITCHELL: Good morning. How are?

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I'm doing great. Thank you for joining us.


MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now, the California food policy advocates has released lost dollars, empty plates. It's a report on food stamp participation in the state. So ALISON, does this report seem to confirm what's been said about San Diego's participation rates?

ALISON ST. JOHN: San Diego County has had for quite a while now, a very bad reputation in terms of how many of the population really are eligible for food stamp help. And this is all federal dollars coming -- pureeing into the county. And now this report does to some degree confirm when we have been hearing, that not only California -- California by the way, is also at the bottom of the list, because of its refresh my memories, but San Diego was one of the worst counties. It does confirm that. But the figures in this report are from the latest figures from the USDA, and they're two years old. So really what this report did was sort of trigger a new look at the -- what's been happening in the last couple of years here in getting some more up-to-date figures because we've heard the county saying that they're gonna try and make an effort to get more people enrolled. So it turns out that they have had some success. And although the report suggests that the county is still near the bottom of the pile in terms of counties getting people enrolled, this is has increased enrollment from about 26 percent. Less than 30 percent of people who were eligible were getting food stamps, up to 40 percent. Which is a significant jump. And just to give you an idea of the numbers, they estimate that almost 500000 people are living at the poverty level, very close to the federal poverty level, which is really low, because San Diego's cost of living is so high. 207000 people last month were getting food stamps here in San Diego.


ALISON ST. JOHN: So that's about 42 percent.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Alison, explain for us a little bit more on how they calculate the eligible people, and what we mean by participation rate. Because I think that's a stumbling block for a lot of people accepting these numbers. How do they know how many people might be eligible in San Diego and therefore calculate how many peep are not receiving food assistance that could qualify for it?

ALISON ST. JOHN: Right. Well, there do seem to be various different ways of estimating that. But I believe that to be qualified, you have to be at or below a hundred and 25 or a hundred and 30 percent of the federal poverty level, which, are the federal poverty level is currently about 22000 for a family of four. So that would be less than 27000 ape year for a family of four, soap that's a pretty low income.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: However if you've just lost your job, if you've just lost your income, you can --

ALISON ST. JOHN: That's true. You could very easily fall into that category. That's right. In order to qualify, you have to jump through various hoops, and I think that's one of the things that's changed. The bar that you have to jump over is changing a bit. You're supposed to provide information about your income every three months in order to stay qualified. In the old days, you used to have to go into an office, which, you know, if you don't want have a car, for example, that could be difficult or if you are still hanging onto a job, you don't want to take a day off and go apply. How you can do it over the telephone, and according to the people at the San Diego hunter coalition I was talking to, that has made a huge defense, and a lot more people are finding it possible to apply. And one other thing, Maureen, that's also order to show cause now, is the fact that you're supposed to provide finger prints which again requires a visit to a place where you can get a finger print. And that's the state wide requirement. But they're, announcing, you don't have to get that for the first year or so. You do have to, eventually, but you don't have to get it right away in order to qualify right up front. So that's helped to let a lot more people over the bar.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I want to get Mitch in the conversation, but just one more question for you, ALISON, before we move on to Mitch Mitchell. There's been a name change for the food stamp program in San Diego, in California.

ALISON ST. JOHN: In California, right a couple years ago, they decided our participation rates were really low, in the state it was less than half the people who were eligible were getting it. So maybe if we brand it differently. Which to some degree, I think true, people don't want like the word assist apse. They don't like to feel that they're on public assist apse. So the name has changed to CalFresh, and that just went into effect last month, account in. And Dale Flemming at the department of health and help senses at the county who I was speaking to, said she doesn't know if that's really made that much defense, or whether the fact, you know, that they've done all these things to make it easier to apply is what's really made the defense. But she says the number of people applying has gone up from about 4000 a month before the economic downturn to about 10000 people a month at this point. Of and it seems to be holding steady at about 10000. And so it's possible that the name CalFresh might have made a difference. But she thinks the partnerships with people like the food bank and many other community organizations is really what has made the difference to people applying and getting the program.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I've been speaking with KPBS senior metro reporter ALISON St. John who is here, and is going to stay with us. I'd also like to welcome right now though, Mitch Mitchell from the San Diego food basic. And Mitch, I know that the food bank has made some big out reach efforts to try and boost participation rates with assistance programs like CalFresh. What kind of an effect has that had?

MITCH MITCHELL: You know, I think what it's done, it's allowed us to work with the county, and we've been really that I willed with the progress we've made. And the big issue, the big impact is when people show up at our distributions, they are now aware that we can help them get prescreened and preenrolled. We've actually trained over a hundred people to help us in our food stamp outreach, and you know, as Dale mentioned, she thinks that the partnerships have had an impact. Wee come a long way since our first conversations back in 2007 about the need to put more emphasis on this situation.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And Mitch, the last time we talked, you were saying that the need has increased in San Diego. Is that still true?

MITCH MITCHELL: People cringe when I say this, but I warn people not to believe everything they read in the paper about the fundamentals in the economy. You know, in San Diego County is still about ten percent, and our lines are still getting longer. It's evidenceds by -- we have distributions now where people are lining up 4 and 5 hours in advance before the start time just to be sure that they get food. And we're feeding 342,000 people a month right now.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now Alison, the California food policy advocates are the ones behind the report that we began talking about. Upon their numbers are from a couple of years ago, but they conducted this survey state wide for what reason? What are their goals.

ALISON ST. JOHN: Well, their goals, I think are to try to lobby for those barriers, they're making the point that this is federal money coming down the pipe for counties it use. And it generates an economic benefit for the county. They estimate that for every dollar you take of food stamps, that generates about a dollar 70 in the economy, because then the family has a bit of extra money to spend on stuff other than food. And mostly that stuff would have a sales tack, and that extra sales tax is gonna come back and benefit the county. So leaving money on the table is not only bad for the families that really need that help, but also is just a waste, really, of resources for the local GOPs, for the economy, for the local economy. And the problem is, of course, that the county has not been able to increase its staff, in fact it's cut its staff. The diameter of health and human services has been cut for the first time recently, and so the staff has not increased, so they have had to think of other ways of making this more stream lined. And that's why I think the partnerships of people like Mitch Mitchell, and the food bank has been so crucial because out reach is not cheap, you know? And you've gotta be able to reach the people and get and help them through the process. To get the food stamps. And I think that the California food policy indicates are really concerned about the fact that Californiaical is one of the few states that still requires fingerprints and they really would like to see some of these barriers lowered so that the state can start opening the doors more to families who need help.

MITCH MITCHELL: And also about that, Alison, I think that's one of the things that we've told people is during the times of crisis, you expect government to adjust and react to the situation. And I think we -- what a lot of people will tell you about the fingerprint think aspect is that during normal times, you know, it's a mechanism that can be used to try and prevent fraud. For instance, when you know that unemployment is extremely high, you know, people that are going to enroll in CalFresh aren't doing it because they needed an extra honest hobby. They're doing it because they really need the support.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And Mitch, what are people who have made the effort to sign up for food stamps/cal fresh, when are they telling you about the process at this point?

ALISON ST. JOHN: Well, in our process, it's interesting. One of the things that we've done, as I mentioned before, is we've adjusted. So I'm really proud of -- right now, one of the programs I'm really happy about, is we go on the school campuses, for instance. When the moms are there, fathers are there picking up their children after school, we have two tents there. One tent, we sit you down in, and we see if you're eligible and we prescreen you, and the other tent, we help you fill out the application, and then we have you sign your name, and we take the application to the county. And we see you all the way through the process. If there's a problem with the application, then we check and help correct that problem. But I think, yeah, what we saw all along was that the food stamp or the calpers application was very, very frustrating and for people who this is their first time in the system, the first time having to ask for help and support, they just -- thigh would throw their hands in the air and say how am I supposed to figure this out? So I think what we're anxietiling towards is employing to simplify the process, making it easier for people to get enrolled, and then get, in our instance, we're actually physically walking the application through the process to make sure that people are actually getting connected. So we have had great feed back from our programs, you know, we're going to senior centers, we're on school campuses, I think that also it's getting better, but it still has a ways to go.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: We have a listener on the line who would like to ask a question. Sarina is calling from Mission Hills. Good morning, Sarina, and welcome to These Days. Of.

NEW SPEAKER: Good morning, Maureen. Thank you very much for taking my call. I would just like to comment that I would like to see the county supervisors walk lock step with the food stamp program for our folks here in San Diego. I would prefer them concentrate on this type of activity as opposed to development of communities in the knack country, I used to work with Mitch several years ago, hey Mitch.


MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I admire him so very much for all that he does, because in these tough economic times, we are our brother's keeper,ow are our sister's keeper 678 thank you for your time.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Sarina, well, thank you for the call in, I appreciate it.

ALISON ST. JOHN: I think Sarina's point is well taken. San Diego has to develop a plan for the back country as well. But this CalFresh, this food stamp program has been something that was really very low on our list of priorities and I think initially they were putting more emphasis on making sure there was no fraud and keeping people out, than they were in providing people help. And that has shifted. When I look at this report from the California food policy advocates, it is obvious that there are some counties around California that are doing a much better job. If San Diego's now doing about 40 percent, you know know, getting 40 percent of people who are eligible, part of the am Mr., Sacramento for example, appears to be covering about 75 percent, and so llano county about 75 percent. So there's a gamut across the state. But even imperial, which is just our neighbor is covering about 58 percent. So it looks like San Diego still has a ways to go.

MITCH MITCHELL: We are improving, and we have a ways to go. And I will say, it has really been nice to work with Nick Macchione and his staff --


MITCH MITCHELL: At the county, I think they realize that the situation really is calling for us to be creative and think out of the box. But we should all be calling for a statistic that puts us more in the 60 percent range. That's what our goal is, is to try to help the county get there, there are a lot of people in the county who need the support and they need it now.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: However, the application rate has gone up to -- what is the number you gave.

ALISON ST. JOHN: 10000 a month.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And the staff at health and human services has been cut back. One wonder fist that commitment is really there full on. What kind of feeling did you get about that, ALISON.

ALISON ST. JOHN: Well, speaking request Dale Flemming, it's kind of a conundrum situation, where the demand is really sky rocketing and the resources are if anything going back the other way. Because she said also the state and federal government pays for some administrative costs but they haven't gone up with inflation. So the money coming in from the state and federal government to actually administer the program is actually not keeping up with the times. So the thing that my need, I think is to continue these partnerships, that seems to be one of the keys. And if the state could loosen these refresh my memories about the fingerprinting that may be one of the things as well. And it may just be one of these things that takes a while to turn the ship around. You can really feel that in the raft 18 months there has been a shift in attitude and practices, and it may just take a while to get through to the population that really needs the help.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: We have another caller on the line who wants to address that fingerprint requirement. And Jennifer, from the San Diego hunger coalition, good morning, Jennifer, and welcome to These Days.

NEW SPEAKER: Hi, thanks for having me on.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: You're welcome.

NEW SPEAKER: Yeah, so Mitch talked about the finger imaging and I wanted to address that in particular, our state spends over $11 million on fingerprinting each year. And it's actually a total waste of money. The only thing it does is prevent people from double dipping in the system, going from one office to the next. And there's lots of other ways to prevent people from doing that, matching Social Security numbers, things like that. So we'd really like to see the state end this practice over all. Because it's such a barrier for people. And --

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I'm sorry, Jennifer, I understand that you want to get the finger imaging requirement out of the picture. But while you're on the line, I just wanted to ask you, from the San Diego hunger coalition, if you have noticed or have seen a difference in the way that the county is dealing with people who are asking for food assistance. Has the attitude changed?

NEW SPEAKER: I think over all, there has been a shift in terms of wanting to make sure that people who are eligible are able to access the benefits. I think there's still some shift that needs to happen in terms of, you know, our society in general has a hard time recognizing that people in need are not bad people. That people that are struggling are not morally deficient. And so I think over all in our communities, we need to shift that attitude to realize that there are lots of people who are working or who lost their jobs due to no fault of their own, and they need help. There's no fault in that.

MITCH MITCHELL: Yeah, Jennifer makes a great point on that. . That's one thing that we always remind the public. The face of hunger has changed and don't think it's someone who has a tough time keeping a job, we were at distribution yesterday with the first lady, and that's the one thing we talked about, we were there with men and women who are part of military families and they are getting support, and there were other people there who were actually in the CalFresh table. The face of hunger and the face of families and individuals who are struggling has changed in this great economic recession. And people really have to stop and think about the fact that you don't know who it is. It can be your neighbor, it can be a family member, but it's not that face that some people envision it to be of it's everyday, it's people who haven't had a job last year, can't find a job or they're under employed.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Jennifer from the San Diego hunger coalition, thank you so much for calling in. Of and when you said first lady, you meant California's first lady, Maria Shriver was with you last week and lookinga the the food bank ask touring around that facility. I just wanted to make sure that clear. Alison, when can we look for confirmation that our participation rate in the CalFresh program, the food national and food stamp program has actually increased?

ALISON ST. JOHN: Well, the figures come in -- the figures that the county are getting are the updated ones, the ones that are pretty recent. Dale Flemming was saying 207,000, that's what she was saying, I think the number that's less clear is the number of people who are eligible. That seems to be a number that depends on a different criteria. That's why this participation rate of about 40 percent currently, and Mitch Mitchell was saying we'd like to get up to 50 percent. It's really a difficult thing to estimate because this body of people who are eligible in the criteria is sort of a difficult pool to estimate. But it is clear that 200 -- more than 200000 people in San Diego are currently signed up for CalFresh.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And Mitch, I don't want to end this conversation without asking you, if people listening want to help the food bank over the holidays, what can they do.

MITCH MITCHELL: Well, we're the easiest organization to work with. You can either, you know, go into your pantry and collect some food and bring it down to the food bank or to any of the food sites or the Vons or stater brothers. You can go on-line and donate money or participate in the virtual food drive. And what we really depend on these days is volunteer time as well. In the busy season for us, between November 1st and January 2nd, you know, we have a ton of food that's coming in for food drives and donations, and the volunteers make a big difference, and they really are true hiros, they help us operate efficiently.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Mitch, thank you so much.

MITCH MITCHELL: Thank you so much.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Mitch Mitchell from the San Diego food bank. And Alison, once again, thank you.

ALISON ST. JOHN: Thank you, Maureen.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: KPBS metro reporter, alal. If you'd like to comment, there's go on-line, Days. Of coming up a former African child soldier talking about his remarkable journey to America. That's as These Days continues here on KPBS.

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