Clutching a ruby red pomegranate in one hand and her EBT card in the other, Casedria Parker shops at the North Richmond Fresh Cargo food truck. A valuable resource for Parker, the pop-up truck provides discounted produce to recipients of CalFresh, otherwise known as “food stamps.”
Still, the lively crowd surrounding the truck— picking out the freshest oranges or bundles of chard— isn’t as large as it could be, as only half of eligible recipients in California are applying for food stamps.
“It’s not difficult to enroll. But a lot of people don’t take advantage of it,” Parker said.
Five years ago, a Grand Jury dinged Contra Costa County for underutilization of the CalFresh program. It was reported that the county failed to receive as much as $54 million in federal funds because only about half of residents eligible for CalFresh benefits actually participated in the program.
According to the report, “every $1.00 of CalFresh benefits generate about $1.79 of economic activity.” This means the county may have lost as much as $97 million in funds to be spent on food and groceries.
Five years later, and a large chunk the federal aid still remains untapped. Data provided by the California Department of Social Services (CDSS) indicates that only about half of eligible residents are enrolling.
In the city of Richmond, a census data report states that “17,000 households in the county have extremely low incomes and are at risk of homelessness,” a finding that suggests substantial need for supplemental federal assistance. Yet “70 percent of Richmond’s roughly 6,000 residents who are eligible for federal food assistance programs are not enrolled,” according to the report.
The reasons that individuals don’t sign up for food stamps vary. Some eligible residents worry about the stigma of being on federal aid. Laura de Tar, the program manager of Fresh Approach, says this is a primary barrier to enrollment.
Others don’t sign up because they are immigrants, and might be afraid of registering their information.
“People fear we will report their information to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE),” deTar said, “but that is not the case. An undocumented immigrant can apply under their child, even if they alone are not eligible.”
And those who want to enroll often face complicated paperwork, or confusion about what locations accept EBT cards.
Increased housing prices in the Bay Area also contribute to low enrollment numbers. There are cost-of-living caps used in the formula that determines how federal aid will be given to a CalFresh recipient. In most states, a recipient can only report a maximum $500 a month as their rent price. California has not adjusted for the current housing market, however, and the cost of living is presumed to be the same amount as a resident in Texas.
California petitioned to allow a homeless individual without an address to enroll for food stamps, but contrasting to these efforts failed to adjust the cost-of-living cap.
This is also the only state that does not allow Supplemental Security Income (SSI) recipients to receive food stamps. The assumption is that SSI recipients already have access to a food stipend, but as deTar points out, the monthly amount given is too small to afford much more than a box of macaroni.
DeTar and the team at Fresh Approach coordinated a chain of mobile farmers markets in Contra Costa County to provide low-income residents access to healthy, farm-fresh foods.
Parker wishes the resource had been around for years. “My older daughter has a lot of food allergies and a resource like this would have been great to have when she was growing up in the ‘80s,” she said.
A bundle of fresh lettuce, sticks of carrots, and ripe tomatoes normally costing $15 at a supermarket chain like Safeway, is only $7 out the window of one of Fresh Approach’s mobile farmers markets. The trucks follow regular routes in cities throughout the county, with the Richmond truck starting its route from Civic Center.
The produce is grown by local farmers that employ the most climate-forward agricultural practices, and is offered at discounted costs. And the team has made sure that the resource extends to SSI recipients.
For an area like Richmond, challenged with dramatic health disparities, residents have greater access to fast food than to produce markets or grocery stores.
According to the city’s general plan, “for every supermarket or famer’s market located in Richmond, there are at least six fast food restaurants and convenience stores,” which might explain another reason that food stamps remain an underutilized resource.
For Parker, who lives locally and frequents the pop-up farmers market on Wednesdays, the Freshest Cargo trucks are her only access to purchasing healthy foods and learning about nutrition. She says she can’t find or afford these types of fresh greens at any nearby grocery markets. Although the supplemental federal food assistance income is limited, she tries to encourage friends that are skeptical of the program to enroll. She also says the funds are easy to use at sites like the Freshest Cargo truck.
“Living on a fixed income, you have to know how to properly manage your money,” Parker said. “And now there is an opportunity to do that.”