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Nearly 300,000 San Diego County residents could get help paying for groceries, but don't

An sign displaying "We Accept EBT" is hung outside of a store in City Heights, in this undated photo.
Matt Hoffman
An sign displaying "We Accept EBT" is hung outside of a store in City Heights, in this undated photo.

Community organizations speaking more than 20 languages between them can help residents apply for CalFresh. To see if you’re eligible and for help applying, call 2-1-1.

More than 285,000 San Diego County residents are eligible but not enrolled for CalFresh benefits, according to a newly completed study by the San Diego Hunger Coalition. The organization said a conservative estimate was based on a lower income limit and census numbers that undercount the population.

The most significant enrollment gaps are in communities home to majority-Latino residents with large immigrant populations, including College Grove and City Heights in San Diego and Chula Vista.


But it’s not just an issue among immigrant or lower-income communities. Despite record inflation of food prices and an ongoing hunger crisis, even neighborhoods like La Jolla have thousands of residents who are eligible for food assistance and don’t get it.

The above map, created by the San Diego Hunger Coalition, shows the percentage of residents eligible for CalFresh nutrition assistance who actually receive the benefit. Some zip codes have much higher numbers of people eligible, so these percentages can mask the magnitude of enrollment need. For example, in La Jolla, 22% of people eligible for CalFresh receive the benefit. But because their eligible population is smaller, it translates to 3,853 people who could receive CalFresh but don't. In comparison, in City Heights, 59% of people eligible for CalFresh are enrolled. But because the total number of people who are eligible is larger, the enrollment gap is much higher  – there are 11,550 people who could get financial help with groceries but don't.

San Diego Hunger Coalition CEO Anahid Brakke said many might not realize they’re eligible. The income limit for CalFresh is double the federal poverty level and households can deduct certain expenses like child care or service animals.

Income limits, before payroll deductions, to be eligible for CalFresh

People in Household
Monthly Income Limit

To see a full list of deductible expenses and how to maximize your CalFresh benefits, click here.

Though the county has begun acting on recommendations to make the application process easier, advocates said the system is still overly complicated. It’s fraught with language, technology and reading-level barriers and requires too much paperwork.


But Hunger Coalition CEO Anahid Brakke said the struggle pays off. A family of four can receive more than $900 per month.

“While the program can be difficult and complicated to enroll in, the time is worth it for the amount; $ 926 is equivalent to about 30 trips to a food bank,” Brakke said.

Many immigrants and asylum seekers incorrectly believe that receiving CalFresh benefits will endanger their ability to become citizens, advocates said.

While people without a legal immigration status are not eligible for CalFresh benefits, their U.S.-born children are. A household can also get CalFresh if one person has legal status.

“They’re afraid to apply for CalFresh because they're worried that they'll be considered a public charge on the government and be looked on less favorably for citizenship,” Brakke said. “That is not true.”

“Public charge” refers to someone who is primarily dependent on the government, but Brakke said CalFresh is typically used as temporary assistance. The average time on food assistance in San Diego County is less than two years.

The U.S. Senate last week passed a resolution to nullify a 2022 change that barred the Department of Homeland Security from considering the use of health care, nutrition, or housing programs in a lawful immigrant’s application for permanent residence.

The resolution will head to the House for a vote by June, but the Biden administration has promised to veto it.

The 2022 change replaced a Trump-era policy that had a chilling effect on the use of nutrition assistance by eligible immigrants. U.S. Department of Agriculture data show many canceled their benefits because they feared their visa would not be renewed, their citizenship would be denied, or an undocumented family member’s information would be shared with immigration enforcement.

Brakke said her organization saw legal permanent residents withdraw their enrollment in CalFresh and their children’s enrollment in free and reduced lunch and other nutrition programs. Though it’s unlikely to become law, Brakke said even “political grandstanding” like the Senate vote dissuades people from applying for public benefits.

The San Diego Hunger Coalition and others across the state have been advocating to extend CalFresh eligibility to all people without legal status through the Food4All campaign. California passed similar legislation for adults 55 and over in 2022.

Brakke said the data does show success in their efforts in San Ysidro and Otay Mesa, where the enrollment gap is less than 20%. She said the data could help all organizations target their efforts more effectively.