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County Official Says Food Stamp Hotline Problems Started One Year Ago

Nick Macchione, director of the county's Health and Human Services Agency, and Sandra McBrayer, head of The Children's Initiative, speak to KPBS Television's "Evening Edition" about issues in the county's food stamp program.

The county first realized it was having problems with a hotline designed to help residents access food stamps and other benefits about a year ago, according to Nick Macchione, the director of the county's Health and Human Services Agency.

Macchione spoke with KPBS Television’s "Evening Edition” about a report commissioned by the county, which found that five out of six calls to the hotline were dropped and that those callers who do make it through wait an average of 30 minutes before speaking to someone. It also found 350,000 calls a month are not answered by HHSA employees.

Work on the access center that handles the calls started two years ago and the call center opened one year ago, Macchione said.

“When we started the call center and people started calling in, we realized that we’re going to need assistance and experts, again we’re not experts in call centers,” he said.

After this realization, the county hired inTelegy, which conducted the report.

In response to recommendations in the report, the county will be hiring an additional 100 people to help with the call center, Macchione said.

The county’s food stamp participation rate of 40 percent is the lowest in the country for metropolitan areas of its size, according to a federal report released last year.

But Sandra McBrayer, head of The Children's Initiative, told “Evening Edition” those numbers do not tell the whole story.

“For a lot of adults, they’re not applying for food stamps,” she said. “I talked to adults thoughout the county who are saying, ‘I’m trying on my own.’”

“As you dig deeper, there are some people who are choosing not to,” she added.

But host Joanne Faryon said the difficulties in accessing food stamps, like those detailed in the recent report, might also be the reason for low participation.

“It is a difficult process and the county has taken incredible steps,” McBrayer said.

As KPBS previously reported, the county has cut its spending on health and human services while increasing funds for public safety. But Macchione said blame for budget cuts rests with the state, not the county’s Board of Supervisors.

Although the county is responsible for 15 percent of the administration costs for the food stamp program—with the rest provided by the state—California has also not increased its funding for administration costs over the past 12 years, he said.

“The state of California does not give adequate resources for administration,” he said. “Not only are we adding funds for the positions with the resources we have, but we spent $4 million to build the access center.”

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