March 14, 2008

Barriers to Food Stamps Continue to Hurt San Diego

By Jessica Nicholas

Of the 800,000 people in San Diego who are food insecure, meaning they live in hunger or fear of it, 250,000 of them qualify for food stamps but are not currently receiving them.

According to Jennifer Tracy, the Food Stamp Outreach Coordinator for the San Diego Hunger Coalition, the lack of access hurts a variety of people. “This includes children, seniors, working people, families and singles. Food Stamp Program dollars help free up cash for families to spend on other needs like shoes, clothing, and medication,” says Tracy.

San Diego has the lowest percentage of food stamp recipients out of all cities nationwide. The number has recently improved, with 31% of qualified residents using the program, a small increase from 27%.

Although there has been some improvement, San Diego is still far behind the national average of 60%. The next lowest city, Las Vegas, has 44% enrollment.

There are many barriers to getting access to food stamps, especially in San Diego.

Tracy points out that many who qualify for food stamps do not know it! Rules have changed and people who did not qualify before may now be eligible. For example, those who owned cars worth over $2,000 dollars did not qualify a few years ago, but the rule has changed to not count vehicles as a factor.

Also, many think that you have to have children to meet the criteria, when in fact, they are available to every citizen regardless of family and marital status.

On top of the challenge of figuring out one’s eligibility, the application process is inconvenient and frustrating. On average, it takes four separate one-hour visits to an office to qualify. Because the offices are open during regular business hours, Monday through Friday from 8am until 5pm, it is difficult for those who work and have children to find the time to make it into the office on four separate occasions.

In addition, the paperwork involved is 20 pages long, making it time consuming and often confusing.

The San Diego training for Food Stamp program employees also emphasizes fraud prevention instead of client service. Tracy points out that this is a huge barrier for needy families. While fraud is something to take seriously, food stamp programs actually have one of the lowest fraud rates of any government program, only 2%.

The District attorney’s office, also involved in fraud prevention, strictly investigates and handles accusations of fraud. “The anecdotal evidence from our Outreach Partners shows that the investigators have a tendency to be rude and demeaning to people,” says Tracy. This makes participating additionally intimidating even if one is completely qualified.

Fear can also be a barrier. In order to receive food stamps, applicants must be fingerprinted and have their picture taken in a government office. This process can be especially frightening for undocumented immigrants whose children are legal residents and qualify for food stamps.

By improving access, more money can be put into the local economy. “We are currently missing out on about $144 million dollars in FSP money that could be spent in San Diego County on food. This contributes to our local economy and to our tax revenues,” points out Tracy.

Fortunately, there are resources available to people looking for help with navigating the food stamp application process. The San Diego Hunger Coalition works to improve participation rates by working with the government and policy makers, as well as educating people about the program. They have multiple community partners who help with paperwork and provide guidance through the process.

To find a community program in your area, contact Jennifer Tracy, the San Diego Hunger Coalition’s Food Stamp Outreach Coordinator at (619) 399-9836 or visit the San Diego Hunger Coalition Website: To find out more about the food stamp program, call 211, the county’s Social Service information hotline.

Jessica Nicholas is an intern with the UC San Diego Comprehensive Research Center in Health Disparities (CRCHD) and is double majoring in Biology and International Studies at UCSD. The CRCHD is a partnership of organizations focusing on community minority health and health disparities research.

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