Carol Hodgkinson always finds a seat on the bus facing the ocean for her trips to the Grocery Outlet in Pacifica. On her next trip, she’ll have a little extra money for fruits and vegetables because she is receiving food benefits that she couldn’t get before.
“Every little bit helps, to get what I can get,” she said.
Until this summer, CalFresh was not accessible to people receiving Supplemental Security Income. On June 1, SSI recipients became eligible for food benefits. San Mateo County officials estimate that about 3,500 people in the county will apply for and start receiving these benefits because of the expansion.
Hodgkinson, who has lived in Half Moon Bay for about five years, applied for CalFresh only days after it became available to her. In the past, her application was denied because she was receiving the federal income assistance.
“I thought, ‘Wow, this is not fair,’” she said.
CalFresh is the state’s administration of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and a way to provide cash assistance for eligible food items that meet the requirement needs of a household. In California, these funds are delivered in the form of an electronic benefit transfer card that can be used at grocery stores and local farmers markets.
“It’s wonderful news,” said Tracey Gould, a case manager for Senior Coastsiders. “We have been advertising the news to our clients and it’s been going well. The SSI recipients are people who are below the poverty line, so these are the people who need it the most.”
Officials say more than 10,000 households receive SSI in San Mateo County and less than half are eligible for these benefits. The California Department of Social Services estimates 75 percent of eligible households will participate.
SSI is a monthly cash grant available for low-income seniors, people who are blind, and adults and children with disabilities who have little to no income.
While the Social Security Administration administers SSI, it is separate from other Social Security benefits, which are based on wages earned before retirement.
“Sometimes these people have to decide between paying rent or getting a prescription filled and buying food,” Gould said. “So, this now means they can have the money available for fresh and healthy foods.”
For years, California was the only state left with a “cash-out” policy that prohibited people who receive SSI from also being eligible for CalFresh. It stemmed from a 1970s policy that gave SSI recipients an extra $10 a month in exchange for not receiving food stamps.
Over time, food prices increased and the system became more complicated, explained Adam Weintraub, deputy director of public affairs for the California Department of Social Services. The average monthly benefit for people who receive CalFresh is $110 to $120 a month, compared to the $10 for SSI recipients.
“CalFresh is really important and has a big impact because the money is specifically designated for food,” said Stephanie Nishio, director for the California Association of Food Banks.
“It frees up space in people’s budgets to pay for housing or other priorities.” The California Association of Food Banks is one of the organizations that helped advocate for policy change for the 1.2 million California residents enrolled in SSI.
While the program is expanding in California, the Trump Administration’s proposed changes to SNAP would limit automatic eligibility for some receiving Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. However, this would not affect SSI recipients who are now eligible for food assistance.
The Coastside faces unique challenges that may not exist elsewhere in the county. Access to food banks, pantries and places to sign up for benefits are limited.
“They have that empowerment now, so they can go to their local stores and buy the foods that they would like, so that is huge for that population,” said Maria Huerta, outreach specialist for Second Harvest of Silicon Valley. “It really helps empower them, if they have certain diet restrictions or need foods that we cannot offer at the food bank.”
Second Harvest of Silicon Valley, which serves Santa Clara and San Mateo counties, was so inundated with calls after the policy change it had to install additional phone lines, Huerta said.
The process to apply for CalFresh involves filling out an application and an in-person interview. Huerta explained it can take about two to three weeks for a person to be approved.
But the San Mateo County Human Services Agency is working to make it easier for people to apply for CalFresh through mobile offices. Residents can come to these mobile offices and apply for food benefits on the spot. If they’re eligible and have all the right paperwork, they immediately get their EBT card.
“It’s really just to help streamline the process and especially for this population that it might be even challenging to get to our regional offices,” said Bryan Kingston, the Human Services Agency communications specialist.
Hodgkinson recently received her EBT card. She plans to continue to have lunch at the senior center, but is looking forward to having more options for her other meals.
“When they changed it, I was like, ‘It’s about time,’” she said.