Over 3.2 Million Californians Seek Food Assistance in the CalFresh Program

Guest post by formerly homeless Conejo Valley resident.

According to the California Department of Social Services (CDSS), at the end of 2010, more than 3,200,000 Californians participated in the federally funded California CalFresh program.  The Calfresh program, formerly known as Food Stamps and federally known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), can add healthy and nutritious food to your table.

The food stamp benefits are given to you in the form on an ATM type debit card that the state CalFresh program funds, typically once per month.  You then utilize the card and associated PIN number to pay for your groceries at your favorite grocery stores.  You may only purchase unprepared food products; no paper products, pet products, certainly no alcohol or tobacco products.  You also cannot purchase deli products that are already prepared or products that you may open and eat immediately.

If you think about it, that does somewhat limit your possible food choices, especially if you’re homeless and you don’t have the means to cook anything.  Moreover, the homeless population cannot store many foods; therefore, you will often only buy what you plan to prepare and eat immediately.  Fresh foods will not last outdoors without spoiling, and you certainly cannot store any refrigerated products, so those are rarely purchased unless you intend to consume them right away.

The food stamp program, which dates back to the early 1960′s, does have a number of inherent shortcomings.  The first is the restriction on buying healthy, ready-to-eat foods from the grocer's deli.  Another is the abuse that’s sometimes reported by the media and takes place by some who participate in the program.  Currently there is no identity check when you use a CalFresh ATM debit card at the grocery store. Thus, anyone who knows your PIN can present your card.  As a result, there’s an illegal food stamp underground, where those who receive food stamps will often sell the use of their CalFresh card, highly discounted, in exchange for cash.

If you’re in the program, single, poor and reside in Ventura County, you'll probably receive about $200.00 per month in CalFresh food stamp benefits.  Many recipients will sell the use of their CalFresh ATM card with the pin number for $100.00 cash.  To keep from starving, those dishonest card sellers, many who are homeless , will simply utilize the shelters as a regular source of meals and pocket the cash.  I guess it’s too be expected.  It seems wherever there’s a state funded program, there’s bound to be some people who try and abuse the system to their benefit.

The CDSS reports that at least three million more Californians who they believe are eligible for CalFresh yet choose not to enroll.  Reports from several social service agencies cite that the California state bureaucracy and the negative stigma that comes with participating in the program are two primary reasons millions avoid it.

If you’re embarrassed about paying for your groceries with a CalFresh ATM card, you really shouldn’t be.  The other shoppers in your grocery line have no clue you're using a CalFresh ATM card when you pay for your groceries.  You’ll swipe the card just like any other bank card, enter your PIN and complete your transaction, just like everyone else does.  The only person who knows you’re paying with a CalFresh ATM card is the cashier, who frankly doesn’t care since they see them all day long.  Your sales receipt will even tell you your food stamp balance, so you know how much you have left to spend with your card.  There’s no reason to go hungry in California.  Do yourself a favor - if you’re poor, take the time and apply for the CalFresh program; you can even apply online at www.myfoodstamps.org/apply.html.