Adventures with San Diego’s CalFresh Utilization Rate

Erika BrownBy Erika Brown

Erika Brown is a PhD Student in Epidemiology with an emphasis in Public Health Nutrition,  and a 2017 Berkeley Food Institute Community Engagement and Leadership Fellow.

This year, I have been fortunate enough to partner with the San Diego Hunger Coalition (SDHC) through the Berkeley Food Institute’s Community Engagement and Leadership Fellows program. One of the goals of this partnership is to help them works towards improving CalFresh enrollment and efficacy in San Diego by analyzing trends in use and non-use with the aim of creating a more targeted outreach plan. CalFresh (nationally known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP) is the largest and one of the most effective food assistance programs in the United States.1 Since its expansion during the Great Recession, SNAP has protected millions of people from experiencing food insecurity despite sky rocketing rates of unemployment.2 It has lifted an estimated 4.7 million people out of poverty.3 The program is advantageous to local communities as well—every dollar allocated in SNAP benefits puts approximately $1.70 back into the economy.4

Electronic Benefits Transfer Sign

Yet, despite its positive impact, SNAP enrollment remains low throughout California and potentially even lower in San Diego County—one of the largest metropolitan regions in the state.5 The need is certainly present: nearly 1 in 6 people throughout the county are food insecure.6 And according to one estimate, the loss of potential economic stimulus ($426 million), job creation (3,069 new positions), and generation of tax revenue ($2.8 million) is enormous.7 I took my position with the intention of helping SDHC identify why local enrollment is so low. However, with my sleeves rolled up and datasets ready for analysis, I got caught in an unexpected web: trying to identify the enrollment rate itself.

Different organizations (within and outside of San Diego) have varying estimates of how many people are eligible but not enrolled in the program. While the Public Policy Institute of California reported that the rate of utilization hovers around 30%, California Food Policy Advocates believes it is closer to 49%.8,9 The San Diego County Health and Human Services Agency (HHSA) has estimated that 67% of eligible participants are enrolled.10 Each group uses the rate it feels most comfortable with, meaning that there is no consensus on the severity of an issue that they are all trying to solve.

This difference primarily stems from the use of different methodologies for assessing how many individuals are actually eligible for the program, which determines the denominator of the rate. While someone may earn below the income threshold of Calfresh, s/he may not meet additional requirements pertaining to immigration status, student status, receipt of Supplementary Security Income, or a number of other factors that may render someone ineligible for the program. Trying to come up with this number using existing data is incredibly challenging. Census designated income thresholds are imperfect, and many characteristics that disqualify someone from CalFresh aren’t measured at all (such as number of undocumented immigrants, full-time students without part-time jobs, etc.). With so much room for error, it’s only logical that organizations would come up with different ways to try to address it.

But why do we care?

As food insecurity relief efforts become increasingly data-driven, it is crucial to ensure that our methods and subsequent estimates are not only valid, but precise. Program efficacy may be questioned with one estimate or praised with another, impacting funding streams and future programming. Certain groups may receive excessive or insufficient outreach relative to their needs—if we cannot solidify a county-wide enrollment rate, there is no hope of drilling down into the data to identify sociodemographic populations and geographic areas that are underserved by the program’s existing efforts.

Throughout my time with them, SDHC has been working tirelessly with different county and state-wide research groups to identify and promote a universal methodology that they believe best captures the utilization rate. Additionally, I have had the privilege of being able to contribute to a proposal that aims to bolster their understanding of CalFresh enrollment using qualitative measures to fill in some holes left by a reliance on aggregate, quantitative data. Depending on how everything pans out in the coming months, I may return to the same datasets for further analysis, or take on new ones.

The work is far from done, but we’re finally emerging from the web. I look forward to seeing where the rest of it takes us.