Food is considered a basic necessity, and yet, 13.5 million U.S. households were food insecure at one point during 2021. Households that are food insecure have difficulty attaining enough food for all their members—usually due to insufficient financial means. For families that meet federal income eligibility rules, there are government programs in place that provide monthly food assistance. In the state of California, where one in five people lives in poverty, that program is called CalFresh.
What is CalFresh?
Previously known as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), CalFresh is California’s name for the federal food program that provides food stamps to low-income households. It is a nutrition program funded by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), helping to promote healthy eating to those seeking food assistance. In terms of organizational structure, the California Department of Social Services (CDSS) is the state agency responsible for administering CalFresh, whereas country welfare departments handle individual cases and certifications.
The amount of benefits one receives is dependent on the size of the household. The maximum SNAP benefit amount for each household can be found below.
Who is Eligible for CalFresh?
CalFresh is only available to certain individuals and households that meet strict eligibility requirements. California residents that fit one of these categories may qualify:
- Low-income/no income
- Supplemental Security Income (SSI) recipients
- CalWORKs of CAAP applicants
- Higher education students who meet eligibility requirements
- Legal permanent residents and qualified immigrants
If you fit into one of the categories above, the next step would be to figure out your income eligibility. Your gross monthly income (which is before taxes and payroll deductions) must be less than or equal to 200% of the Federal Poverty Level (FPL) depending on the number of people in your household. The FPL for 2022 can be found here. After determining if you passed the gross monthly income test, you must calculate your net monthly income. Net monthly income includes deductions, which are allowable expenses that are subtracted from your gross income. A standard deduction is allowed per household per month depending on the size of the household; there are also other deductions related to other categories like rent, utilities, dependents, etc. The full list of allowable deductions can be found here. Net income must be at or below the poverty line to qualify. The federal SNAP program usually has a final test to ensure that assets are below a certain limit, but in California, there is no asset limit.
CalFresh’s eligibility requirements are specific and can be difficult to navigate by oneself, so visit this site for a food stamp eligibility calculator.
How Do I Apply?
To apply online, you can either visit GetCalFresh.org or BenefitsCal.com. You can submit an application that should take about 10 minutes. Visit your local county office to submit an in-person application. During the application process, you will need to submit documentation as proof. At the end of the application, the site will inform you of what needs to be submitted based on the answers you provided.
The following documents are usually required:
- A copy of your ID
- Proof of any income
- Proof of immigration status (for non-citizens)
- Proof of student status (for college students)
The following documents are optional:
- Proof of housing/utility expenses
- Proof of child support paid
- Proof of child/dependent care paid
- Proof of medical expenses (for persons 60+ or disabled)
After your application is submitted, you will be assigned a caseworker. The caseworker will then schedule a 30-minute phone interview with you to confirm the answers you provided and to ask for any additional information that is needed. From there, your application will take up to 30 days to be processed—this may take longer than normal due to the high volume of applications that are received. If all goes correctly, your application will then be approved.
How Can I Use My Benefits?
Once your application is approved, you will receive an Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) card in the mail. The Personal Identification Number (PIN) will be issued in a separate mailing. This EBT card can be used like a debit or ATM card, requiring you to enter your 4-digit pin upon each charge.
These benefits can be used at any participating store that accepts an EBT card. Most major grocers and retailers accept EBT, but you can visit the SNAP Retailer Locator to check. Certain farmers markets accept EBT, where you would need to visit the information booth to get tokens to give the vendor. Visit this site to find a farmers market near you that is EBT-friendly.
With CalFresh, there are certain limitations to what you can use the monthly stipend on. CalFresh allows you to buy food items to eat, as well as seeds and plants that grow edible food. That includes herbs, but not flowers. You are not allowed to buy foods that can be eaten and/or heated in stores. Pet food, household supplies, soap, and vitamins are also not permitted under these limitations. For your reference, items marked with a supplemental facts label will not be considered a food item.
How Do I Keep Getting Benefits?
Each household must complete and submit a Semi Annual Report (SAR 7) annually, which is a report that asks for the current status of your household data. That includes if there are any changes in income, number of household members, expenses, address, employment, etc. Verification must be provided for any changes you report. Your county will usually notify you when it is time to fill out the SAR 7.
Once a year, you must complete a Recertification application and phone interview. This is to ensure that you are still eligible to receive benefits. After your application is submitted, your caseworker will schedule a phone interview with you. Both steps must be completed in order to continue participating in the CalFresh program.
Besides those 2 yearly reports, you must report increases to your income if it is over the Income Reporting Threshold (IRT) at any time. The IRT is the total monthly gross income limit; your country will let you know what your IRT is. You can report changes by calling your county, mailing a form, or in-person at your local DPSS office.
Failure to do so can result in repaying benefits you received based on income that was not reported. If you avoid reporting with the intention of getting more benefits, you could be charged with fraud and barred from the CalFresh program.
Student Hires Program
At Student Hires, we aim to empower both students and families at the community level. We are currently partnering with several TK-12 Schools & Districts throughout California—with plans to expand. Our programs help students navigate career readiness, as their project-based structure allows students to gain valuable work experience. Families are an integral piece to a student’s success, so by providing educational content on various topics, we can help connect families with important resources like CalFresh.
Food stamp programs can be so beneficial for those who need it. Many of these benefits, however, are underutilized by those who need them the most. Thus, it is important for those who qualify to sign up for CalFresh and start receiving food assistance. A simple application can help put food on the table!