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Local Food Assistance Groups Upping Their Game To Aide San Diegans In Need

 May 6, 2020 at 11:21 AM PDT

Speaker 1: 00:00 Thousands of San Diego's who've lost their jobs as a result of the Corona virus. Pandemic have applied for unemployment benefits, but how many are taking advantage of another benefit in California? It's the CalFresh program, otherwise known as snap and formerly known as food stamps. As we watched thousands of cars line up for food at distribution centers run by nonprofits around the County. How is the government benefit helping those now facing food insecurity? Join us is asthma Elliott, chief of eligibility operations at San Diego County health and human services asthma. Thanks for joining us. Speaker 2: 00:34 Thank you Alison. Speaker 1: 00:35 So how has the number of people signing up for CalFresh or food benefits in San Diego County changed since the crew and a virus pandemic hit, Speaker 2: 00:43 we've seen a sharp increase in both applications as well as our caseload. Just in the month of April alone, we've seen over 30,000 applications come in and our caseload volume has increased by about 30% since just mid February. Speaker 1: 00:57 Has the County increased stuff to handle the influx of applications? Speaker 2: 01:02 We have actually shifted our staff around. So normally we would have staff that are processing ongoing work, which has temporarily been put on hold. So we've increased the number of staff that are processing new applications. Speaker 1: 01:15 So how long does it currently take to process an application before someone is actually granted the benefit? Speaker 2: 01:21 We have about 30 days to process the applications. However, here in San Diego County we're able to get them processed within about half that time. Speaker 1: 01:30 So two, three weeks kind of thing. And you say that you've sort of reassigned stuff, is that because people currently on the benefit, there's some changes to the policy there? Speaker 2: 01:41 Yeah, there have been some changes to the program. Governor Newsome instituted an executive order that puts the reporting requirements on hold, so we're no longer processing semi-annual reports and annual reports through the month of may. So we were able to shift a lot more staff over to our new applications. Speaker 1: 02:01 San Diego County used to have a history of not investing in CalFresh with with had lower enrollment than other counties in the state though that had been changing. Has the County invested more in the program as a result of the number of people. Now applying. Speaker 2: 02:14 We definitely have put a lot more resources into CalFresh as well, as well as our other programs with both our administration as well as our technology in order to help us more quickly process applications for benefits and get them out to people. Speaker 1: 02:30 No. Obviously there are eligibility requirements to enroll in CalFresh. Would someone who's recently lost a job qualify? Speaker 2: 02:37 It depends. We do have to assess the entire household, so it would really depend on how many people live in the household and what the income is, whether or not the individual has income, but we are seeing a lot of folks that have recently lost their jobs coming in and applying as well as some of those individuals that are receiving unemployment benefits. Speaker 1: 02:56 And once you're on the benefit, how long does it last? Speaker 2: 02:59 Typically about six months we do a reassessment and if the family or individual remains eligible, they would be eligible for another six months. So about a year. Speaker 1: 03:10 And if you're a family of four, say what are we looking at in terms of benefits? Speaker 2: 03:16 The maximum allotment and benefits for a family of four would be around $646 and their gross income would have to be, um, under 4,000, $292. And there are some factors that we take a look at, such as their utilities and medical deductions and other items like that. Speaker 1: 03:34 Is that a $600 a month? Speaker 2: 03:36 That's a month. Speaker 1: 03:38 Are there any advantages would you say to applying for CalFresh rather than picking up food, say at a food bank? Speaker 2: 03:45 Yeah, I think it's both CalFresh and food banks sort of supplement each other. But the advantages with CalFresh are that the family receives their benefits on an EBT card. So they're able to use the EBT card with any authorized retailer or grocery store that accepts EBT and they can pick their own selection of food rather than having it be a premade selection such as what they would maybe get at a food bank. Uh, in addition to that, California recently expanded online EBT. So individuals who are receiving CalFresh can actually order groceries from both Amazon and Walmart online. Speaker 1: 04:22 Now I understand that many of your offices are closed because of the quarantine. Has that made applying for benefits more difficult? What about people who don't have online computer access? Speaker 2: 04:32 Yeah, it has not. We actually provide individuals many ways to be able to apply, although our offices are mainly closed, individuals still can come into get an application and drop it off with um, any of our offices. We will take in their applications. If they want to fill out a paper application. We also have a mobile app. Uh, so if they have a cell phone device, they can use our mobile app to apply online. And we also have our access customer service center that's open Monday through Friday so they can give us a call and get their application in over the phone. Speaker 1: 05:05 We've heard about long phone wait times. Is that true in this case too? Speaker 2: 05:10 Um, no, not for this. We've actually shifted a lot of our resources over to handling phones. Um, so we've been able to cut down wait times for our call center. Speaker 1: 05:20 And are there many more people, do you think, who might be eligible, who are, who are not signing up? Is there still a bit of a stigma over applying for food stamps, uh, as opposed to unemployment benefits, which people feel quite happy to apply for? Speaker 2: 05:33 Yeah, there might be. In what we try to tell people and educate the community on is that if you're eligible, you should absolutely apply and don't assume that you are or are not eligible. That's what our job is. So that's what we do when we process the applications. We determine whether or not you qualify for the program. Speaker 1: 05:53 And, and finally, the money comes from the federal government and the state. What are the proportions of local and federal and state funding? Speaker 2: 06:00 Yeah, so for the CalFresh program in general, most of the funding does come from the federal government. However, in California, because we do tend to subsidize certain populations or portions of the program, some of those funds do come out of state dollars. Um, and that's with regards to the CalFresh benefits themselves. With regards to administration, we do look at a County, state and local, uh, sharing, uh, mechanism for funding that goes into, uh, costs and overhead for the program. Speaker 1: 06:29 Thank you so much. Asthma. Speaker 2: 06:30 Thank you. Speaker 1: 06:31 That's Asma Elliott, chief of eligibility operations at San Diego County health and human services for those who might qualify for CalFresh benefits but cannot afford to wait the three weeks or so it could take to process the paperwork. It's easier to go to one of the food distribution centers happening all over San Diego. Nonprofit groups like the Jacobs and Cushman food bank have ramped up their supplies exponentially to meet the increased demand. Joining us as James Flores, president and CEO of the Jacobs and Cushman food bank, thanks so much for joining us. Thanks for inviting me. So tell us how much have you increased your operations since the pandemic began? Speaker 3: 07:10 Before the pandemic, we were already feeding 350,000 people through 200 distribution sites, plus a network of 500 nonprofit agencies. For your listeners? Pretty much any nonprofit they know that has a feeding program, that nonprofit is getting the majority of our food from us. Really, it's just on us to up our game and just literally put more food into the food chain. Speaker 1: 07:31 So by how much has it increased? Speaker 3: 07:34 Just in the month of March, we distributed about 67% more food and we ramped up really quickly and we fed between 200 and 250,000 more people. So we went from feeding 350,000 people a month to somewhere between 550 and 600,000 people in the month of March alone. Speaker 1: 07:51 Wow. And have your distribution systems changed as a result? Are you putting out to more places? Speaker 3: 07:58 Yes, we done a few things. We did some mass distributions to really get more food into the food chain. We removed all barriers, uh, getting more food to our nonprofit partners. Just in the last two weeks of March, we distribute like 700,000 pounds of food for that short and some of the lines. And then we have a mobile pantry. We had to before. Now we have a four or five, so sometimes you need some hotspots where you can go and do some uh, pop-up distributions. Uh, and then we're working with school districts and I think 16 sites with San Diego unified and 12 with San Diego County office of education and four with Vista. We just added one for Sandhya CDOT. So, you know, those are things we're doing to augment our existing system. And there's a lot of school feeding sites. So we come, you know, once a week or maybe every other week, and we bring in product for those families that have more shelf stable food. Speaker 1: 08:46 Have your sources of food changed? You know, are you able to get fresh produce? Speaker 3: 08:51 Here's a statewide program. It's called farm to family and all 41 food in California. This existed before we co-op together and we buy less than perfect produce. The stuff that you grew in your backyard, you'd eat it, but you wouldn't buy it in the store. So that system is still there. In a typical year, we would maybe do a million dollars in food purchases. We just finished our second million dollar food order and we're a third one is on the way and we're starting to, you know, prep for that one. And that's all in the first eight weeks of this pandemics. We're buying more food. We're reaching out to, you know, we're getting food donations, we're raising a lot of money because we're spending a lot of money. Speaker 1: 09:27 Do people need to prove that they are eligible in order to access any of this food? Speaker 3: 09:33 Uh, not really. We run two federal programs and the one called the emergency food assistance program. People need to be below 230% of the federal poverty level. Uh, but I've never seen a distribution when anybody was ever turned away. And if you're suddenly not getting a paycheck, you know, you're somebody who's never asked for help and you're not getting a paycheck, you're going to qualify. And that's that program. Before the pandemic was serving nearly a hundred thousand people, but the vast majority of our distributions and the ones of those 500 nonprofits, those are no questions asked. People show up and they get food. Speaker 1: 10:04 Are you hearing any stories particularly about how people are, uh, receiving the food? Speaker 3: 10:10 I have a stack actually of a letters. There are a lot of people thanking us, you know, I've never had asked for help and some people are too proud and they're thanking us for saving their life, for, for helping them through the crisis. I just say, Hey, this is what we do for a living. We're here to serve and just let's stay calm and we will weather the storm together. Speaker 1: 10:28 And do you think this will change your operations in the future? Speaker 3: 10:32 I like the mobile food pantry. I like hitting those hotspots. So that's something I'm going to want to keep going. I think doing more of that, and again, it's just on us to make sure we have enough food and literally in the food chain, uh, through this new grassroots distribution model. And a big thing about that distribution model that we have, it's about client dignity. You want to give people food for their families in a dignified way. So not turning away people from distributions, not making them wait in their cars for hours and they get turned away that that lacks dignity. So it's about helping serving people, but doing it with dignity for your listeners, if they need help or they know somebody needs help, San Diego food bank.org backslash get help, go to that website. And um, there's a distribution area site near your home where you can get food for your family. Speaker 1: 11:20 Thank you so much. I've been speaking with James Flores, president and CEO of Jacobs and Cushman food bank. And a quick note, another nonprofit feeding San Diego was also offering emergency food distribution at SDCU stadium. Every Saturday this month, starting at 9:00 AM, you can find more information@kpbs.org Speaker 4: 11:43 [inaudible].

Local food banks have had to nearly double food distribution to people in need because so many San Diegans are currently out of work due to the coronavirus pandemic.
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