The number of people in San Luis Obispo County applying for a federal program that provides food to the needy has zoomed upward, according to the county’s social services director, and even with that increase, thousands of people who could receive the benefit are not applying.
Department of Social Services Director Lee Collins said that in January the county provided CalFresh benefits to 6,360 households — not including 1,428 households in which CalFresh benefits are provided as part of a CalWORKS grant. Those 6,360 households included 12,196 people.
The average monthly caseload this fiscal year, Collins added, is up 29.5 percent from last year, 72.5 percent from two years ago and up 152.6 percent from four years ago.
“The caseload has skyrocketed over the last few years, since the recession sunk in,” Collins said.
CalFresh formerly was known as food stamps.
Collins said his department is authorizing about $2.3 million in CalFresh benefits a month. If the county continues at that same rate throughout the current fiscal year, he said, it will issue approximately $27.6 million in benefits.
But even with the greater participation, many who qualify are not benefitting from the program, according to an advocacy group.
California Food Policy Advocates, which monitors the use of the program, ranks San Luis Obispo County 55th out of the state’s 58 counties in the ratio of those who are eligible to those who participate.
The group said the program — which they call “a critical defense against poor nutrition” — is “severely underutilized,” with half of all eligible Californians missing out.
In San Luis Obispo County, California Food Policy Advocates said, if everyone who qualified participated, the county would receive an estimated $34.3 million in additional federal nutrition benefits each year.
Collins was skeptical of the group’s numbers, but conceded that the program is underused.
“I have no doubt that there are many, many people in San Luis Obispo County who would be eligible for CalFresh benefits if they would only apply,” he said.
A stigma still remains for those who receive food stamps, even if it goes by a different name, he added.
Collins added that the state erects “ridiculously high” barriers to participation.
For example, he said, applicants must undergo finger-imaging, which scares some eligible people away, because they “don’t like undergoing a process that feels similar to a criminal booking.”
In addition, California requires multiple visits and “reinvestigations” at a rate higher than most other states, he said.