In their words: stories from people who use GetCalFresh.org
When we design government services with people at the center, we create new ways to connect people in meaningful ways.
Food stamps is one of the most important parts of our social safety net. In California, millions who are eligible for assistance are not making it through the front door. Code for America's GetCalFresh.org is designed to help people enroll in food stamps at any time, from any device. It's not just a website: it's a service that constantly discovers and meets user needs, by supporting people throughout their journey. Here a few of their stories.
When Dylan Acosta received a text checking on his CalFresh application status, he almost didn’t believe it was real. He’d had his information stolen before, and he was wary.
“It was my first time dealing with government. I won’t lie, I was a little nervous and embarrassed to say I need food stamps. But at the same time, it’s benefiting everybody. And that’s one of my things I really believe in. I like when people help each other out.”
Applying for food assistance already felt like a leap for him, and interacting with government had left him frustrated in the past. But, he was shocked at how easy it was to use GetCalFresh.org. Soon, he found himself trading text messages with Dave Guarino, a Code for America engineer who leads the project. Together, they created a plan to follow up with Dylan’s case manager and get him approved.
At the time, Dylan and his girlfriend were living out of a car while he looked for work as a caretaker. They struggled to eat healthy, relying instead on fast food that did not need a kitchen to prepare. “It’s been tough for both of us in terms of having a listening ear,” he said of his journey. “So reaching out and actually having people respond really motivated and inspired us. There are people out there who really listen and care, who listen to stories.”
Momentum began to shift when Dylan’s grandfather let the couple stay at his place. Soon after that, Dylan completed his interview and received an EBT card. “With this program, I don’t have to worry about food. It’s one of the best feelings ever - it’s something off my mind. It’s one less thing I have to worry about right now, at this moment in my life, and that’s something I can really use.”
He started to cook more. Shopping for ingredients felt different than buying fast food. “I was actually nervous when I had my card. Trying to buy something good for yourself, you know? ”
Dylan continues to keep in touch with his CalFresh case manager. When they last talked, he shared his latest excitement: he got a job as a caretaker and hopes to keep moving forward. “Hopefully one day I won’t need the card anymore,” he says, smiling. “It helps me kick my own life into gear, too.”
Laura Ospina and Jaqueline Marcelos
Financial Capability Program, Mission Economic Development Agency
First time visitors to the Mission Economic Development Agency (MEDA) are greeted by Laura Ospina and Jaqueline Marcelos. The two women lead MEDA’s Financial Capability Program. They also help Spanish-speaking clients, ranging from families to seniors, with more daily concerns, like how to translate a letter, or how to get help putting food on the table.
“Of course we are not able to solve all the problems. But we want to take the time at least to listen to their needs. This is very, very important.”
Most of the families who come to MEDA are low income or moderate income families. For many of MEDA’s Latino and immigrant clients, those first conversations are crucial for connecting them to resources like food assistance. If it’s taking too long to fill out an application for food stamps, children fidget and important details may be missed. MEDA’s clients are wary of asking for help from the government.
Information about CalFresh can be hard to find or understand, which can lead to unfounded fears about the process. “A lot of families think that if they apply for CalFresh [the government] is going to charge their kids when they grow up, or send them to the military,” said Jaqueline.
Jaqueline said that her clients are afraid to go to the Human Services Agency office because it’s “intimidating.”
“I tell my clients that they don’t need to go there, said Jaqueline. “We will do everything here in house for you. Even before you apply, we are going to verify your eligibility so you don’t have to spend extra time.”
Doing all that work upfront took Jaqueline and Laura hours. Hours they could have spent helping more families. When they heard that GetCalFresh made it easier and faster to complete CalFresh applications, they started using it with clients immediately.
“GetCalFresh is easy for us to use and less intimidating for the client. We don’t have to keep asking and asking so many questions. The application works with our clients.”
The MEDA team has been using GetCalFresh for more than a year and say it saves clients 35 minutes of paperwork each time they apply. Ever since Jaqueline discovered the mobile website, she uses her phone to sign people up while they’re standing in line at the office.
Laura and Jaqueline find that their clients’ success is more than just their professional mission. It’s a personal one. Jaqueline realizes that her time speaking Spanish makes MEDA feel like home for many.
For Laura, it is all about providing opportunity for people to take the next step. “I’m an immigrant as well, I didn’t grow up in a country where services like this are available. If you don’t have enough, you don’t have enough, and you don’t eat. That’s it.”
“Being able to serve people who really want to do well but they’re having difficulties - not because they’re not smart enough, or they don’t know what to do - it’s just that they don’t understand their current environment. For me it’s really important to support people - to break those barriers and help them be as successful as they want to.”
At the Marin County Farmer’s Market, Pat Soberanis makes a beeline for the apples. “I literally have an apple a day,” she says. “And I’m healthy! My favorite things are lettuce and tomatoes for salad, and then I usually try to get something that I can cook up for snacks during the week.” She adds a few more ingredients to her bag before handing over a palmful of tokens to the vendor.
The tokens are new for Pat. They allow her to use her EBT card to buy food at the outdoor market. She started coming here only after qualifying for CalFresh in July, because she learned about a “market match” program that doubles her CalFresh money when she uses it for fresh produce. “That allowed me to get a little bit more, like these $3 a pound apples, which I probably would never have done but they’re so fresh and good... and the yoghurt. I probably wouldn’t get things like that without CalFresh.”
Pat is a former teacher and writer who lives in senior housing in Marin County, the closest she can be to her beloved hometown of San Francisco after being priced out. When she first moved there, her income was almost entirely the social security that came at the beginning of the month. That stretched her food budget to its limit as the month went on. “I was buying all my groceries at the beginning of the month and by the 15th, I would have pretty much no money,” she says. She found herself planning ahead for every meal and trip to buy groceries, especially because she knew she would soon have to give up her car. But when she applied for CalFresh for the first time, she left feeling discouraged.
“I went to get food stamps in this big big room with seating in the middle, and a bank of windows that were like bullet proof windows. Very intimidating. And just a few caseworkers and you get a number and you wait, wait, and wait and it wasn’t like it was a crowded room or very long line, you just waited a long time.”
Then, she tried searching online. GetCalFresh.org allowed her to apply without visiting a physical office, and she was amazed at how easy it was. Within a week, she heard from the Code for America team to check on her progress. “It was really helpful. I was sort of dropping into a black box to submit that application and not having any idea how long it was going to take, or where it was going to go. For you guys to check in every few weeks and ask, ‘how’s it going?’ was really helpful for me. It was just nice to have somebody checking in.”
Now, with her CalFresh benefits, Pat is able to buy food throughout the month without anxiety. “I would encourage anyone who thinks they have a chance who is having trouble making ends meet with food to give GetCalFresh a try.”