$215 million of potential federal aid

Jeff vonKaenel

Two-hundred-and-fifteen-million dollars is a lot of money. It’s almost as much as the imagined cost to the taxpayers of building a new downtown arena. It also represents how much additional money Sacramento-area residents could be receiving in the CalFresh, or food stamps, program. In the five-county region—Sacramento, Yolo, El Dorado, Nevada and Placer counties—there are roughly 150,000 people who qualify for food stamps but are not receiving them.

Let me repeat that: We have 150,000 people who qualify for $215 million in federal aid, but they’re just not signed up. A recent study by the California Department of Social Services found that local CalFresh enrollment has grown since 2007. But the problem of underparticipation remains.

Recently, during the Sacramento Metro Chamber Cap-to-Cap trip, 300 Sacramentans went to Washington, D.C., to lobby lawmakers to invest in Sacramento. But 15 of us also went to a meeting with the undersecretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Kevin Concannon.

In numerous other meetings with elected officials, we were asking the federal government to invest in Sacramento. However, in the hour-and-a-half meeting with Concannon, who oversees the $113 billion Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, he politely explained what we needed to do in order to receive additional federal revenues.

As it happens, California’s low food-stamp-program participation is our own fault. Only about half of eligible California residents receive CalFresh benefits, whereas other states, such as Maine, Virginia and Oregon, are in the 90-percent range.

Concannon suggested we look at the state of Oregon. It has simplified its procedure, making it easier to receive benefits. And it has significantly reduced administrative costs, without any increase in fraud, according to Concannon.

He also recommended we look at how Florida nonprofits, faith groups and food banks have done great community outreach. Even while having a reduction in state employees, Florida was able to significantly increase its food-stamp enrollment with community-outreach programs.

In January, we formed an ad hoc committee made up of elected officials, homeless advocates, food-bank operators, welfare-department employees and the News & Review to work on this problem and to figure out a way for Sacramento residents to receive the aid that they are entitled to.

And we are figuring it out. By having our five counties work together, having the welfare department reform its process and make it less complicated, and by having local nonprofits do outreach supported by the business community, we can directly help 150,000 residents in our region. That’s our basic plan.

Encouraging our neighbors to spend an additional $215 million in our grocery stores and farmers markets would create an arena of economic benefits. And, in contrast to the proposed sports arena, the money comes from Washington, D.C., not the local taxpayers.

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About the Author

Jeff vonKaenel
Jeff vonKaenel is the president, CEO and majority owner of the News & Review newspapers in Sacramento, Chico and Reno.