Twenty years ago, Liz Gomez — then the Food Bank’s emergency food helpline coordinator — noticed an alarming trend among callers seeking same-day food assistance. Despite being our country’s first line of defense against hunger, most callers weren’t enrolled in CalFresh (then still known as “food stamps”), a program that gives eligible households money to purchase the food they need most at a grocery store.
Equally alarming: some callers had never even heard of CalFresh — and most who had heard of it found the process too cumbersome to be worth applying for.
That’s when Liz saw an opportunity.
This August marks the 20th anniversary of ACCFB’s CalFresh Outreach Program — the longest-running program of its kind in California, and one of the largest in the nation. Getting here, however, took considerable work and dedication.
ACCFB’s CalFresh outreach “department” started in 2003 with Liz splitting duties between outreach and her existing role running our helpline, and a single AmeriCorps volunteer. On any given day, Liz and the volunteer pre-screened up to 50 households for CalFresh eligibility and hand-completed 25-30 applications — each 16 pages in length. “At the end of each day, I stuffed the completed applications into envelopes and drove them over to the Social Services office,” says Liz. It was labor-intensive but Liz was nonetheless driven. “Each application that was submitted meant dollars in people’s pockets to buy the food they needed and sending it via mail meant fewer food dollars for families,” she noted.
The program experienced its first notable expansion two years later, in 2005, with the help of a USDA grant to add Chinese language outreach assistance (Liz, who is bi-lingual, launched the program with both English and Spanish assistance). But it was in 2006, however, when our program really took off. Alameda County Social Services Agency, noting the high approval rates of applications submitted by Liz and her team, began to support this important work by funding our efforts — the beginning of what, to this day, is a model for the power of public-private partnerships in the fight against hunger. In just a few short years, ACCFB became the county’s lead subcontractor for CalFresh application assistance.
“It took 10 years of testing and adjusting,” Liz says of the iterations it took to build a comprehensive program partnership that spans pre-screening for CalFresh eligibility, application assistance, and training for other community partners.
Keeping in mind that there was no model for this work when Liz started, it’s a considerable testament to our partnership with Alameda County Social Services that CalFresh outreach departments are now ubiquitous across California food banks (representatives from ACSSA and ACCFB regularly co-present at food bank conferences). And the impact isn’t limited to California: Countless food banks across the country—from New Mexico to Ohio and Pennsylvania—have traces of our DNA in their own similar outreach programs.
Today, Liz is the Food Bank’s chief impact officer overseeing all operations, programs, and client services — including a CalFresh outreach team of 16 multi-lingual staff whose work creates a ripple effect benefiting the entire community. Liz estimates that our CalFresh outreach efforts have helped “well over 100,000 households” in the 20 years she’s been doing this work. And, in the past five years alone, our team has helped provide over 31 million meals in CalFresh benefits — while bringing more than $175 million in economic stimulus into our local economy.
Still, a program like CalFresh is, most importantly, about eradicating hunger — something it helps accomplish by putting resources directly into the hands of people who need it most. And yet, such power is hardly guaranteed. Beyond only outreach, our Food Bank has spent decades leading forceful policy change efforts to expand access to this program. In just a dozen years we’ve helped overturn unjust fingerprinting requirements and resource limits (at one time, CalFresh recipients couldn’t even have a savings account!); eliminated an eligibility ban for people with certain felony convictions; and expanded access to seniors and people living with disabilities.
Arlan Murillo, ACCFB’s new director of client services, sees the profound impact of all this work, every single day. “ACCFB is more than just food,” says Arlan. “We’re a place of resources and information for community members to find what they need to thrive.”
To learn more about CalFresh, or to check if you are eligible, visit foodnow.net, or comidaahora.net.