SACRAMENTO, Calif. — A college student in Fresno who struggles with hunger has applied for food stamps three times. Another student, who is homeless in Sacramento, has applied twice. Each time, they were denied.
A 61-year-old in-home caretaker in Oakland was cut off from food stamps last year when her paperwork got lost. Out of work, she can’t afford groceries.
While picking up a monthly box of free food, a 62-year-old senior in San Diego told outreach workers that she won’t apply for food stamps because she worries that it might prevent her from qualifying for U.S. citizenship.
All told, roughly 1.6 million Californians are not getting help from the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, known as CalFresh here, even though they are eligible. That means 28% of people with poverty-level budgets didn’t receive the food assistance they needed, according to 2017 state data.
At the bookends of adulthood, college students and seniors increasingly struggle to pay their bills yet they are among the groups most likely to miss out on the food stamps they qualify for, according to interviews with more than a dozen outreach workers and state and county officials. Obstacles also face immigrants, working families and homeless people, experts said. When these categories overlap, the hurdles to obtaining food stamps are often higher.
At California State University campuses in 2016, just 5% of students were getting food stamps even though one in every four is eligible. For seniors in California, just 19% get the assistance, compared with 42% of seniors nationally, according to 2015 data. And citizens who are immigrants are less likely to sign up than those who were born in the United States.
For those living on the edge, food stamps can make a big difference: The average CalFresh household each month earns $735 and gets $272 in food stamps, which amounts to $3 per meal. A family of two qualifies with $16,920 per year after paying expenses such as housing and childcare.
“On a human level, what that means is that we continue to allow Californians to go without food,” said Jessica Bartholow, a policy advocate at the Western Center on Law and Poverty.
California’s low enrollment is not inevitable. Nine states, including neighbors Oregon and Washington, enrolled nearly every eligible person in 2016, according to federal data, while California had the fifth lowest rate in the nation.
Each story of someone who loses out on food stamps provides a lesson for how county officials and state lawmakers could clear the roadblocks that prevent people from getting help.
Here are some of their stories.
“It’s like a job itself to apply”
On an empty stomach, Beverly Callupe’s brain felt hazy and slow while her English instructor reviewed possible exam questions on the memoir The Glass Castle.
“I just try to write down everything and try to make sense of it after, when I’ve gotten some food,” said Callupe, 20, a Sacramento City College student. “Doing something as simple as reading just becomes so exhausting. Paying attention is really difficult. It is not the best state to go to class.”
Hunger has been a constant for Callupe since June, when she left what she describes as the abusive household of a parent and became homeless overnight. Now living in a shelter, she supplements free dinners there with the cheapest foods she can find: canned soup, pancake mix, granola bars, canned peaches. She often skips lunch, and said she goes to bed hungry “almost every single night.”
The first time Sacramento County denied Callupe’s CalFresh application, several months ago, she wasn’t sure why. The second time, a county worker told her that she needed to work more hours to qualify.
That’s because federal law bars full-time students from receiving CalFresh benefits unless they meet one of several exceptions or work at least 20 hours per week — an amount that can hurt their grades and delay graduation.
“I was really sad and frustrated because I was really depending on that,” said Callupe.
In late October, she dropped all of her courses to focus on finding a job. She is hesitant to apply for CalFresh again because she plans to enroll as a full-time student again next semester.
Many students also struggle to navigate the complex rules. Ruby Sultan first learned about CalFresh in a class for her major in Food Science and Nutrition at Fresno State University. The instructor assigned the students to live for one week on just $21 worth of food — a typical food stamp budget. To Sultan, the assignment felt like an abstract exercise.
“Now it’s like my real life,” said Sultan, 26, who has since moved out of her mother’s house, become financially independent and unsuccessfully applied for CalFresh three times.
Between odd jobs and teaching classes at three fitness studios, Sultan said she hardly has enough money to cover food and rent. But the aspiring dietitian refuses to let her budget diminish the quality of her diet, so she meticulously plans meals with fresh veggies, seeds and grains. Meanwhile, she holds off on other expenses, like textbooks.
Apart from the $25-$30 she spends on groceries each week, she relies on free rice, beans and oranges from a food pantry, and weekly hot meals at a local church.
Sultan frequently works over 20 hours a week but has struggled to prove it to Fresno County. The first time she was denied CalFresh, she couldn’t get pay stubs for one job in time. The second time, she hadn’t worked enough hours to qualify. The last time, in September, she was working enough hours but failed to get a boss to sign a form before time ran out.
Student hunger and homelessness in California is widespread. In a 2018 survey at 23 California State University campuses, more than 40% of students reported food insecurity while one in ten said they experienced homelessness in the past year.
“It really has to do with this kind of mythology about students that comes from the history of education being reserved for elite and middle class people,” said Bartholow of the Western Center on Law and Poverty. While previous generations might have been able to rely on their parents for help with food costs, she said, many of today’s students come from families already grappling with hunger. Students who have children or receive certain other forms of aid — such as Cal Grants and federal work-study jobs — are still eligible for food stamps.
In recent years, California campuses have stepped up their efforts to help students like Callupe and Sultan negotiate the CalFresh bureaucracy. Some hold fairs in which hundreds sign up en masse.
Sacramento County sends county workers to fairs at two area colleges — though not to Callupe’s — several times a year to help students apply on the spot, said Media Officer Janna Haynes. Fresno County has trained staff at campuses to help students apply and has clarified letters to students, said Social Service Program Manager Angela Stillwell.
“The support is there if [students] have the time to seek it,” said Stillwell. But she said there’s only so much Fresno County can do to simplify the process given federal regulations.
Campus outreach workers say their biggest challenge is meeting the growing demand from students who want to apply but need support.
When Fresno State added a CalFresh application link to its class registration system, interest among students skyrocketed, said Jessica Medina, who runs the school’s food security project. Nearly 400 students have applied this quarter alone, she said, compared with a total of about 200 over the previous two years. Medina estimates she’d need two to three assistants to handle the volume of questions her office receives. Right now, she has one part-time helper.
A few days after her third denial, Sultan said she was too discouraged to apply again.
“It’s too much time. It’s like a job itself to apply.”
“I don’t know why they cut me off”
It’s not only students who struggle to navigate CalFresh. A year ago, Ruth Aquino, 61, received a letter from Alameda County saying that her CalFresh benefits had ended because she failed to turn in a report verifying that she was still eligible. But Aquino says she did submit the report, and left a voicemail to confirm it.
“I don’t know why they cut me off when I submitted the papers. I have the receipt,” said Aquino.
She had come to count on the $91 per month. Now, between jobs as an in-home caretaker after a client died, she has no income. To save money, she stopped filling prescriptions to treat her high cholesterol.
In September, she learned that she could sign up for CalFresh in the lobby of her low-income senior apartment building in West Oakland. She decided it was time to apply again, no matter how frustrating her last experience had been.
“Sometimes I’m looking at food that I want to buy that I cannot afford,” Aquino said. With the extra grocery money, she’d be able to buy meat with less saturated fat. She daydreamed about making a big spaghetti dish with lots of vegetables.
With the help of an outreach worker from the Alameda County Community Food Bank, it took half an hour to upload Aquino’s documents — ID, rent receipt, utility bills — and answer the application’s many questions. Days later, a county worker called Aquino for a required interview. When her application was approved about a week later, she received $194, the maximum amount per month for a single person.
To veteran CalFresh outreach workers, the phenomenon of people reapplying after they accidentally fall off is called “churn.”
In the first quarter of 2019, 23% of all new CalFresh applications statewide came from people who had received the food aid within the last 90 days.
Sometimes people churn because their income temporarily rises above the limit, but more often it’s due to paperwork problems. Often people miss the deadline for their six-month status report or annual recertification, or their paperwork is deemed incomplete. It’s not uncommon that documents gets lost at the county, according to outreach workers.
For Sharon Johnston-Corson, 50, of Sacramento, it took losing a job to have time to deal with CalFresh. Without a computer at home, she said she and her husband had struggled to find time outside of their full-time jobs to go to a library where they could upload required documents. A month ago their CalFresh was cut off.
But now that Johnston-Corson’s temporary job has ended, their family — including teenage twins — is living on the $11 per hour her husband makes.
“One thing being out of work is that I do have time to get to the food bank and get all of that (CalFresh) stuff done,” she said.
In California, about 61% of eligible working poor people participated in CalFresh in 2016, compared to 75% across the country, according to federal data.
Incomplete applications and churn are especially common among homeless people, who often lack an address and cellphone, said Amy Dierlam, CalFresh outreach director at the River City Food Bank, a lifeline for Sacramento’s growing homeless population. Some have trouble keeping track of papers and appointments due to disability, mental illness or addiction.
While waiting for Dierlam’s help on a recent afternoon, Antonio Chaquies, a middle-aged homeless man, railed off a list of things that have gone wrong: His CalFresh card was stolen, his benefits were cut because he didn’t turn in one of his interim reports, his backpack containing personal documents was stolen. He’d missed multiple county meetings.
“They just don’t get through the hoops,” Dierlam said. Her job often feels like detective work, piecing together clients’ stories with letters from the county to figure out why their CalFresh was cut.
“For some, it’s life or death.”
“This program is not for me anymore”
Nearly two decades ago, when Evangelina Castaneda’s husband passed away, food stamps helped her family make ends meet. But now the 62-year-old San Diego resident doesn’t want to depend on governmental assistance.
“I have fear that I will lose my papers,” said Castaneda who is originally from Mexico, but as a lawful permanent resident for decades, is eligible for food stamps. “Now it’s a little scary because of the president…. I hear about what he says sometimes in the news.”
Castaneda said she usually has enough to eat, and when she doesn’t, she picks up boxes from the food bank or attends meals at a local church. Of her four adult children, she said, “They don’t know I go to these places to eat food…. I’m not going to tell them, because they have their own families.”
Castaneda’s concern has become increasingly common among immigrant communities since early 2017, said food bank outreach workers. That’s when a version was first leaked of a Trump administration rule that would make it harder for immigrants to get a green card if they were likely to use safety net benefits like food stamps or Medicaid.
California and other states sued the Trump administration and federal courts blocked the rule on October 11, days before it would it take effect.
The court battle hasn’t made a difference on the ground. Maria Lewis, a San Diego Food Bank CalFresh outreach coordinator, estimates that she talks to about 10 people each week who worry applying for CalFresh would harm their or a family member’s green card application.
Across the state, social services providers have reported that even those, like Castaneda, who would be unaffected by the federal rule increasingly are avoiding safety net programs because of uncertainty and confusion.
The fear has made it harder to get CalFresh to immigrants. But the puzzle of federal eligibility requirements for non-citizens has long been difficult for county workers to explain in English, let alone in other languages.
Among U.S. citizens who fall below the income limit for the program, the rate of immigrants who reported participating in CalFresh is 70% that of people born in the U.S., according to 2018 California Health Interview Survey data.
Counties can fight the chilling effect by ensuring that all paperwork is well-translated into locally-spoken languages, said Almas Sayeed, deputy director of California Immigrant Policy Center. She said county offices dedicated to providing immigrants with a welcoming space in Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Mateo and Santa Clara provide a model.
Castaneda also didn’t want to accept food stamps because she thought it should go to needier people, a belief common among seniors. “These programs are good but I feel that this program is not for me anymore because I’m healthy,” said Castaneda. “I don’t want to take advantage.”
Limited knowledge of the program and the intimidating amount of paperwork also are significant barriers for seniors, said Lorena Carranza, CalFresh outreach manager at the Sacramento Food Bank.
One recent policy change may help educate seniors and dispel myths. Until June of this year, low-income seniors and disabled people receiving Supplemental Security Income (SSI) were barred from getting CalFresh. But California lawmakers voted last year to expand the program to SSI recipients, so counties and food bank mobilized a statewide enrollment campaign. As of October 1, nearly 243,000 SSI recipients had enrolled.
There are common themes among these tales of Californians — college students, immigrants, seniors, people working long hours and those without homes — who are not getting the food they need.
Misconceptions about who’s entitled to food stamps abound. Getting on and staying on the program requires a lot of time, diligent record-keeping and comfort navigating bureaucracy. Many need the support of food banks and non-profits to guide them through the program.
Alexis Fernandez, acting chief of the California Department of Social Services CalFresh branch, said increasing participation among students, working people and seniors is a priority for the state. Some progress already has been made: The state has dropped requirements for fingerprints, a test of financial assets and a lifetime ban on people with drug-related felonies.
Allowing people to apply and be approved for the program all in the same day, as Washington state has done, would greatly reduce barriers, said policy advocate Bartholow. Some California counties have moved towards this model by checking state databases rather than requiring people to track down documents, offering applications entirely over the phone and letting people do the interview on-demand.
But the roll-out hasn’t been uniform across the state’s 58 counties, which each run the program separately. State leaders have clashed over how much improvement can be gained by pressuring counties to be more efficient and how much depends on the state providing more funding for workers and outreach.
The stakes are high as populations who are vulnerable to hunger swell. Seniors, who are increasingly poor and immigrant, are the fastest growing age group in the state. More low-income students are attending California colleges than in the past. And homelessness is rising rapidly amid a housing affordability crisis.
But closing the gap between those who need food stamps and those who aren’t getting them is doable, Bartholow said.
“It’s not as complicated as being hungry and trying to go to school, or being hungry and trying to find housing, or being hungry and trying to care for your kids, or being hungry and needing to take medication with your meals,” Bartholow said.
“There’s a meal with their name on it.”
Jackie Botts and Felicia Mellow are CalMatters journalists. Botts is part of The California Divide, a collaboration among newsrooms examining income inequity and economic survival in California.