Since Code for America streamlined the process for applying for California’s food stamp program — known as CalFresh — the web-based application form has seen major spikes in demand, most notably last summer when the state expanded the program and allowed all low-income seniors and people with disabilities to apply.
Then the COVID-19 virus hit, closing bars, restaurants and businesses across the state before a statewide lockdown on March 19th. On March 18th, 7,182 people applied through the online application, known as GetCalFresh, almost four times as many as a regular day. On March 24th, applicants rose to 7,283. “We keep hitting a new record of application volume each day,” says Tracey Patterson, senior director of Code for America’s Social Safety Net.
What was originally a tool to simplify SNAP applications promises to be a lifeline to the state as the number of applicants explodes. The key is in the real-time feedback loop GetCalFresh provides, which Code for America hopes can inform state policy that’s coming to address rapid job loss and economic need.
GetCalFresh emerged as a San Francisco pilot to address a longstanding statewide gap in how many residents eligible for SNAP benefits actually receive them. “2016 data shows California fourth from the bottom of all states, with a participation rate of 72 percent,” according to Jared Call, a senior advocate with the statewide policy group California Food Policy Advocates, who works to increase access within CalFresh. “By comparison, there are seven states at 100 percent participation.”
Call says there has been “a lot of positive policy” over 20 years to increase the number of participants, but barriers to access and participation persist particularly for older adults, non-English speakers and the working poor.
A complicated application and interview process persisted as one challenge. When the Code for America team started working on a solution in 2013, they found that applying for assistance online took the better part of an hour, with 200 questions presented over 55 unique screens. Applicants didn’t have the ability to save their progress or go back a page. The application was followed by an interview that if an applicant missed, they were denied benefits.
Code for America developed a new digital portal, housed at GetCalFresh.org, that reduces the application process to about 10 minutes. GetCalFresh also acts as “digital assister,” supporting applicants through each step of enrollment. Once someone has applied for food assistance through GetCalFresh, for example, they receive text confirmations and reminders for things like an upcoming interview.
“What GetCalFresh did to really change the game was become a statewide outreach contractor,” notes Call. Outreach is the key word — beyond simplifying the application, Code for America conducts user interviews and tracks questions and comments through its “live chat” and “open text” application features. “We have an ongoing feedback loop — we never say the application is done,” says Patterson. “In fact, it changes pretty much every two weeks with small modifications.”
Since the COVID-19 virus outbreak, the team has correlated city and state shutdown announcements with increases in applications per county. They’ve also received comments from users about unexpected job loss and anxieties around matters like paying rent.
“We’re in constant communication with all the counties in California as well as the state in terms of daily updates about the numbers and themes of client comments,” says Patterson. The benefit is twofold, she says. The state can use the information to inform waivers it requests from the federal government to increase benefits. (A federal waiver may ask to temporarily increase SNAP benefit amounts to the maximum monthly allotment.) Data will also inform the state when the need outweighs the capacity of CalFresh, prompting the state or counties to take measures like opening emergency food banks.
There are already changes statewide and more likely to come from the federal government. On March 17th, Governor Gavin Newsom issued an executive order waiving all redetermination requirements for CalFresh benefits for 90 days. On March 23rd, the United States Department of Agriculture approved the state’s request to waive periodic reports for CalFresh. Last week, the USDA issued this letter informing states of the ability to waive SNAP’s interview requirement through May.
Code for America isn’t the only voice calling to simplify and strengthen SNAP — op-eds recently ran in The Hill and with Center for American Progress to do so, noting that the largest program in the federal nutrition safety net is one of the most effective supports for the economy during economic downturns.
In unprecedented times, Patterson even suggests that if another round of direct payments from the federal government is needed, money could be loaded directly onto EBT cards SNAP participants already possess. “This is a societal shift we can’t predict when it will end, and we need to be prepared that recessions always hit the poorest people the hardest.”
In the constant tweaking of GetCalFresh, Patterson knows SNAP can be further improved to address the current crisis. “I’m hopeful that policymakers can start to see how SNAP is one of the most effective tools to respond to economic need — if you need it, it’s there,” she says. “Given that structure, it can become a really nimble tool, as long as you view it like that.”