Food Bank Senior Calfresh Outreach Coordinator Robert Gama will never forget the woman who gave him a grateful hug in the Food Bank lobby after he helped her sign up for CalFresh benefits. Robert, who has been helping people navigate the CalFresh application process for six years, recalls the memory:
“I could tell Sheila* had been crying. I took her application, told her the next steps and she seemed a lot calmer afterward. She got a quick approval because we turned in everything she was supposed to. A couple of weeks later, Sheila came in, and when she saw me, she was beaming! She was all smiles and told me, ‘I just need to tell you that I am really grateful to you because I honestly didn’t know how I was going to feed my kids. Once I got approved, it was a weight off my shoulders.’ And since it was pre-COVID, she asked me if she could give me a hug; she was super grateful!”
CalFresh is California’s version of the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), and it was created to do the heavy lifting when it comes to fighting hunger in our communities. It provides nutrition benefits to assist food-insecure families with stretching their food budgets and helping them afford healthy food. The program offers working families the flexibility they need to get groceries before or after work and allows for a more extensive selection of nutrition than food banks can provide.
The Food Bank of Contra Costa and Solano advocates and performs outreach for CalFresh because we see how it transforms lives firsthand. Recent data shows that CalFresh keeps over 800,000 people per year from falling below the poverty line.
Experts estimate that 30% of qualifying households are not enrolled in CalFresh even though it is the single most effective hunger-fighting tool available in California. The Food Bank educates the public and dispels myths because we know the average monthly benefit of $166 can be the difference between eating and skipping meals.
Potential applicants are often surprised to learn that having children is not a requirement to qualify; applying doesn’t take away benefits from others; owning a car or home doesn’t automatically disqualify them, and (now) it’s okay to be on SSI. It’s also crucial for us to break down stigmas, so everyone gets the benefits they deserve. For example, did you know most of the people on CalFresh are from working families?
To help with what can be an overwhelming process, the Food Bank’s trained bilingual staff and volunteers help applicants assemble the documents they need, explain what to expect after they submit their application and assist them through the appeal process, if necessary.
Last year the Food Bank helped over 1000 people apply for and receive their benefits. But for Robert and the rest of the CalFresh Outreach Team, it’s not about the number of applications approved—it’s about improving lives and bringing some relief to people who need it most.
“The people we serve are often going through so much. It brings me a lot of joy to let them know about CalFresh because when they no longer have to worry about having enough to eat, it helps them better cope with their other struggles,” Robert shared.
May is CalFresh Awareness Month, but the Food Bank, with the help of our hunger-fighting community partners, educates neighbors about this impactful program year-round. Not only does CalFresh have the power to change the trajectory of someone’s life—like Sheila’s—it strengthens communities.
*Name changed to protect privacy