The seemingly unending problems with San Diego County's food-stamps program

by Kelly Davis
February 2, 2012
San Diego City Beat
There's a poster on the wall of the Market Street welfare office in Southeast San Diego.

"Applying for CalFresh just got easier," it says. The poster encourages people who want to enroll in the federal food-stamps program—dubbed "CalFresh" by the state—to call San Diego County's "ACCESS" phone line.

Launched in early 2010, ACCESS was supposed to cut down on the need for in-person visits to Family Resource Centers, like the one on Market Street. But, according to a report by call-center consulting firm Intelegy, ACCESS is a mess. Commissioned by the county and released last week, the report says that in September 2011—when Intelegy did its research—callers to ACCESS waited at least half an hour on hold. And that's when they got through at all. In September alone, the overwhelmed phone system dropped 406,000 calls.

"All roads lead to the [Family Resource Center]," the report says, meaning that if people can't get through by phone, they're going to go to an FRC. There, advocates for food-stamps recipients say, people encounter long waits and confused staff.

At a January meeting of the county's Social Services Advisory Board, Maria Aceves, president of the board of the Supportive Parents Information Network, talked about what she'd been hearing from folks in line at FRCs.

"Problems aren't solved in one visit to the office," she said. "People wait in line starting at 6:30 a.m. It takes two hours to get inside the building… and then they're told they're in the wrong line."

When FRCs are open is another issue. CityBeat couldn't find hours of operation posted anywhere on the county's website. If you have a question, the website urges, "Call ACCESS."

It's been more than six years since the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC), a national public-policy advocacy organization, published a report looking at food-stamps-program enrollment in 22 urban areas. Published in 2005, the report looked at data from 2003. San Diego County was dead last on the list with only 26 percent of the eligible population enrolled. The next lowest, Houston, was 13 points ahead of San Diego.

Topping the list was Memphis, where 97 percent of people eligible for food stamps were receiving them.

FRAC's most recent report, published last year using 2009 data, had the county's participation rate at around 40 percent—better but still the lowest among major urban areas and far below the national average of 76 percent.

Though FRAC's data has been called into question by the county's Social Services Advisory Board—even FRAC admits in the "methodology" section of its reports that its numbers should be treated as "estimates only"—advocates say that by looking at other measures, like the unemployment rate and recent poverty counts, and comparing them with San Diego County's CalFresh enrollment, it's likely that more than half of people eligible aren't participating in the program—even despite a huge increase in enrollment. In December 2006, 87,702 county residents were enrolled in CalFresh. By December 2011, that number had increased by 164 percent to 231,248. By comparison, enrollment statewide increased by 94 percent. Of California's largest counties, only Riverside County saw a larger increase in enrollment—201 percent. 

Bill Oswald, a professor at Springfield College, believes the county's keeping up with the demand created by the recession and not doing much to chip away at low enrollment numbers.

"For us, it's great that more people are getting [CalFresh]," Oswald said, "but the issue is not so much how many people are getting it, but what proportion of the population that's eligible are getting it."

Advocates working with Cal-Fresh applicants and recipients say there's other evidence that the county's system is flawed. The rate at which the county improperly terminates or denies benefits, for instance, has consistently been one of the highest in the state. Last year, roughly one of every five requests for new or renewed benefits was denied in error, according to data maintained by the state.

"I can't think of a person who hasn't had their paperwork lost," said Jennifer Tracy, interim executive director for the San Diego Hunger Coalition. "It seems like it's very, very common for people's stuff to get lost or misplaced."

Joni Halpern, an attorney and executive director of the Supportive Parents Information Network (SPIN), said she spends a significant amount of time helping aid recipients navigate the county system.

"As soon as I hang up here, I'm going to see this family," Halpesaid during an interview. "The mom has a job. It takes her a fivehour bus ride to get to that job every day and get back. I think she's doing all she can.... You add to these difficulties the problem of keeping a food-stamp case open without errors…. She's just one example. You keep seeing these examples."


It's mid January in a small conference room at the Metropolitan Transit System building near Petco Park. The Social Services Advisory Board (SSAB) is getting its first look at some of Intelegy's findings. Board member Bob Brandenburg, a retired mathematician, is not pleased.

"They wait until a crisis is upon them and then hire a consultant to tell them what to do," he says. "Classic fatal mistake."

Bob Brandenburg (left) and Phil Thalheimer
listen to staff during a recent meeting of
San Diego County's Social Services Advisory
Board. Photo by Kelly Davis


Advocates say that they've been pointing out problems in the county's food-stamps program since at least 2009. That year, they presented the county with formal recommendations (which were later folded into a larger study) to be considered alongside what the county called its "Nutrition Security Plan"—a multipronged effort to boost enrollment in CalFresh and streamline the application process. The ACCESS phone line and an overhaul of the system—known as business process re-engineering (BPR)—were cornerstones of that effort.

Halpesaid that SPIN already noticed issues with the call center the county had in place at the time. And the BPR model, she said, relied too much on a computer program, CalWIN, that was notorious for being cumbersome and counterintuitive.

"All we asked is, ‘Before you sign off on a Nutrition Security Plan that has two problematic elements in it [business process reengineering] and ACCESS—before you sign off on something that has those as the key elements, would you mind considering this study so you can see that perhaps the very things that you're going to rely upon for a remedy are the cause of the problem?'" Halperecalled. "They refused. And they adopted the Nutrition Security Plan… and then we watched this unfold."

But advocates didn't give up. In response to their persistence, and after a number ofcriticalnews stories, county Supervisors Greg Cox and Ron Roberts a year-and-a-half ago put together an ad-hoc working group to study the recommendations made by advocates like SPIN, the San Diego Hunger Coalition and the Caring Council. In that working group, advocates found allies in Brandenburg, who was named chair, and co-chair Phil Thalheimer, who currently chairs the SSAB.

"They came to us with a great deal of trepidation," Thalheimer said. "We made sure and will continue [to make sure] that they have a forum. I guaranteed to them a year ago that we would not give this up. It will be the focus point of my tenure on this committee."


Brandenburg and Thalheimer "promised us that they were not just there to inoculate themselves to the fact that we have complaints," Halpesaid, "to say with a dead ear that they had heard. They promised us that they would keep us on the docket and we would have a place to be heard. They are the reason we still have hope in this process."

At Brandenburg's urging, SSAB voted last week to draft a letter to the Board of Supervisors, urging that the county's Health and Human Services Agency (HHSA) hire staff for what's known as an organizational research group—basically a team of systems analysts who track and anticipate problems in a system as complicated as the county's social-welfare program.

Brandenburg, an expert in organizational research, told county staff at a recent SSAB meeting that had such a team been in place, "you could have fixed [call center problems] gracefully and avoided a train wreck. There'll be another train wreck in two to three years, and you'll have to hire another contractor. You're trapped in a cycle.

"It's Sisyphus trying to roll the rock up the hill over and over."


At a recent SSAB meeting, county officials said the recommendations laid out by Intelegy would be implemented—including hiring more staff and adding more phone lines.

"We don't think our entire system is working the way it should, either," said Dale Fleming, director of strategic planning and operational support.

"This is a first step," she said of the Intelegy report. "It's a hypothesis based on data and observations. It's our commitment to make sure that, at the end of the day, we have a system that's accessible."

A county spokesperson declined CityBeat's request for an interview with HHSA director Nick Macchione and didn't respond to follow-up questions. Macchione told U-T San Diego's Jeff McDonald—who first wrote about the Intelegy report on Feb. 8—that the county has spent $3.6 million to improve access to its social-welfare programs and has been recognized by other counties for its efforts.

"I think the county has done a lot to streamline the process," the Hunger Coalition's Jennifer Tracy said. "And I think a lot more can be done."

The unanswerable question is: How many people don't apply for CalFresh because they don't want to deal with the system—as opposed to not being aware they qualify or simply choosing not to enroll? To qualify for food stamps, a person's income can't exceed 130 percent of the federal poverty threshold—$29,055 for a family of four. And, once you're enrolled in the program, the state requires you to submit a quarterly report proving that your income hasn't exceeded the limit. It's that paperwork, advocates say, that presents a barrier to enrollment and often gets lost, resulting in folks getting kicked out of the systemA new semi-annual reporting system won't be implemented until next year, Tracy said.

"Just because somebody's eligible for food stamps doesn't necessarily mean they're going to take them," Thalheimer said. "And part of it may be that… they don't want to deal with the system. It could also be other reasons. Where I grew up, people wouldn't do that. The community took care of themselves and they wouldn't be caught dead taking something from government…. That doesn't make it wrong. And it doesn't mean other people taking services is wrong."

Editor's note: This story was funded by a grant from the Sierra Health Foundation to do independent reporting on the topic of food access in California.