“Success is measured in the people we serve”

Lessons learned on GetCalFresh’s journey from a simple web form to a statewide service

Code for America’s GetCalFresh service started as a protest. Five years ago, a Fellowship team decided to dig into why the SNAP participation gap in California was so high, with less than two-thirds of the people who were eligible for CalFresh (California’s name for SNAP) were actually receiving food assistance. The team found that the online application process was a huge barrier for people seeking help. To apply for food assistance, people had to answer 200 questions over 55 unique screens. They didn’t have the ability to save their progress, or go back a page. It took the better part of an hour to fill out an application.

Today, that same process takes about eight minutes on GetCalFresh.org. GetCalFresh acts as a “digital assister”, supporting users through each step of the eligibility and enrollment process. Once someone has applied for food assistance through GetCalFresh from their phone or computer, they receive text confirmations and reminders throughout the remainder of the process. The process of applying for food assistance can be confusing and difficult to navigate, but with the help of GetCalFresh, counties are able to serve clients with ease and dignity.

“Technology can be both a diagnostic and the medicine for what ails us.”

In its first year, GetCalFresh assisted around 1,000 SNAP applications in one county. The day before Summit, GetCalFresh assisted 4,000 applications across the entire state. It has grown from a small pilot in a few Bay Area counties to a full-fledged digital service, operating in all 58 counties in the state of California. To date, GetCalFresh has helped more than 1 million people access food assistance.

“Ultimately, success is measured in the people we serve. Not the deadline, not the budget, not the staffing, but the people we serve.”

Key to this growth and success has been Code for America’s partnership with the California Department of Social Services. At Code for America Summit, GetCalFresh’s Associate Program Director Caitlin Docker took the mainstage with Kim McCoy-Wade, Chief of the CalFresh Branch at CDSS to discuss that partnership, putting clients at the center, and what’s next for GetCalFresh.

To hear their presentation in full, watch the video or read the transcript below.


Jens Egerland:

Hello everyone. My name’s Jens Egerland and I run our California Practice for Accenture. We’re proud to be here. This is our, I think, third year being here, and we like digging in with you all on some of the toughest problems that are facing government in this digital age.

Today, I’ve got the pleasure of introducing the next speakers. Back in 2013 Code for America noticed that applicants for food stamps were having a difficult time making applications and getting the benefits that they needed. They recognized a need to reinvent that, and that eventually turned into a partnership with the state of California to develop GetCalFresh.

The way it works is that a Code for America is able to observe what’s going on in the counties. We know that SNAP is administered down at the county level, but what they’re able to do is observe and figure out what the barriers are that are preventing eligible individuals from accessing benefits. So there’s a loop that goes between Code for America, the counties, and then the state, and those insights are shared, so that feedback loop drives process change down at the counties.

The real benefit of all of this is, of course, the clients. This is what we’re all striving for. If you look at the results that GetCalFresh has been able to deliver is, they’ve been able to reduce the amount of time that it takes to get benefits by 75%, and actually increased the application rates in the counties that it’s used. Really, the value of this and the key to the success of this is a partnership between Code for America and California Department of Social Services. Kim McCoy-Wade has been the leader in that, in seeing the need to do this and drive increased food stamp rates throughout all of the counties.

Tomorrow is going to be a big day for people receiving CalFresh food stamps and they’re going to be accessing and making new functionality available as part of the GetCalFresh app.

With that, I’d like to introduce, well, the person also on the Code for America side is Caitlin Docker, been working closely with Kim to make this all happen. So with that, I’d like to introduce Caitlin Docker and Kim McCoy-Wade.

Caitlin Docker:

GetCalFresh started as a protest. The status quo was that people had to fill out 200 questions, over 55 unique screens, to apply for food assistance. They couldn’t save their progress or go back, and then they had to go over many of those same questions again in an interview. The result was less than two thirds of people who are eligible for SNAP in California received the benefit.

In 2014, our work to enroll every eligible Californian started by simplifying the application process. We built a single page web form with the only four questions required to be a legal application under federal law. The web form filled out a PDF, faxed it to the county who determined eligibility.

And our clients said it worked.

Our first year we assisted at about 1,000 SNAP applications in one county. Yesterday, GetCalFresh assisted more than 4,000 applications statewide. That’s more than 9,000 people helped in a single day. Sometimes there’s more than one person on each application. I’ll save you the math, by the end of this year, five years after we started this journey, GetCalFresh will help more than a million people access food assistance.

GetCalFresh started in San Francisco and expanded across the Bay, focused on remote populations in the far north, students along the central coast, and families in the central valley, added the great state of Los Angeles. And today I am excited to finally announce that GetCalFresh is officially statewide.

I want to thank and give a shout out to all of our county partners who are here with us today. I see some of you out there. In partnership with all 58 counties, we’re finally able to serve Californians with ease and dignity, and I just want to pause and ask Kim to put this in perspective.

Kim McCoy-Wade:

Well, it’s right on time, because tomorrow … this week two big things are happening. Not just that GetCalFresh is going statewide, thanks to the deep partnership with our 58 counties, but also the biggest expansion of SNAP in the nation’s history is happening tomorrow, as we welcome 800,000 older adults and people with disabilities who receive SSI to CalFresh for the first time in the program’s history.

Some people had said the technology is not for this customer and we actually disagree. We think that older adults do use technology. People with disabilities use technology, and it can save them from having to travel, come in. They often have caregivers, who are adults, logging on late at night, and we know that’s super important for them as well.

But this is so much more than technology. It’s about constantly improving, and they’re never done. I love that they don’t think just inside the regulations, although of course we do follow the regulations, USDA. And second, they hit those deadlines but they’d never consider it a deadline. We are constantly improving. We know we hit a deadline and it’s going to get better and change, maybe even the next day.

Part of that’s so important, with the CalFresh program, the food stamp program nationally is, the application is the easy part. After the application, we have an interview and we need to verify those documents, and it’s critical that we help our clients get through all three of those steps.

But unfortunately, we made great progress on docs, we told you about that last year, that interview, boy, that interview is our challenge. To connect with people and get them across the finish line.

Caitlin Docker:

Yeah. Nearly 30% of applicants tell GetCalFresh that they are denied because they missed that interview. So that’s what we’re tackling next.

We found that clients don’t have input on that interview appointment time and they wouldn’t know that they missed their … well, we wouldn’t know that a client missed their interview for more than 120 days with the lag of getting data and outcomes. So we decided to ask clients, real time, why they were in that application process, have you had your interview yet? So we could provide support and intervene. If a client says, yes, great, make sure that you upload any outstanding documents that the county asked for. If not, then let’s help you reconnect to that interview.

One of our partners in Los Angeles pointed out, the clients are working when the county is working, so we shouldn’t be too surprised that more than half the applicants miss the original appointment time that the county set and need to reschedule.

We haven’t solved this problem yet, but client reminders reduced denials, due to missed interview, by 5% statewide. And Kim’s team is partnering with the counties to learn more and rethink this business process.

We told you that CalFresh expansion is coming on Saturday and man has the word already gotten out. We know more people are applying right now than ever before, and county backlogs are growing, call center wait times are increasing. So we’re holding two things in tension. Clients are eligible for benefits, we want to connect them right away. But we also want them to have a positive experience when they’re interacting with the counties. So on Monday, GetCalFresh will update with the message, maybe like this, we’re still working on it. It’s in development. To let clients know that counties are experiencing a higher volume, to hang tight, they are important, we see them, we’re going to help them get through this process. And this is just our first step in working toward a larger solution this summer and the months ahead.

Kim McCoy-Wade:

What we’re showing here is GetCalFresh is so much more than a website. It is both the medicine for what ails us, more applications, and the diagnostic, why are we sick? These business processes are helping our clients and our counties rethink how we connect and how we stay to connect, and that we can then scale it up to serve the two million people we serve every year.

And of course we cannot be comfortable only reaching the two thirds. We have to go get that missing million. There’s a couple of reasons why it’s so critical for this to happen, at the risk of stating the obvious. If people don’t have food, we will not be able to have the health and equity that we need in California to truly be a California for all. Particularly right now with the housing crisis. Rent always eats first. People are going hungry or at levels that have not been true for a long time in our state, and we’ve got to Get CalFresh and we got to solve the housing crisis as well.

It’s also critical for equity. We are seeing incredible declines, unfortunately, in people speaking languages other than English, partly due to the climate, but we also want to make sure that our technology is available in all those languages, grateful for the Spanish, and so happy to announce that traditional Chinese, GetCalFresh will be in traditional Chinese beginning in July. So thank you for that.

But let me be clear, this is a hopefully providing a transformative experience for our clients and making it easy to GetCalFresh and have that food that provides that platform. But the real transformation is happening with us, and we are so grateful for that. California is at an incredible moment, technology-wise, as we move from three eligibility systems to one eligibility system. June is a big month in California.

Caitlin Docker:

June is a big month.

Kim McCoy-Wade:

We’re moving to one eligibility system, and it’s critical that we take these transformative lessons forward. That when we think about how we deliver our services, put our customer first, change our own business processes, how we measure risk, and how we measure success. Because ultimately, success is measured in the people we serve. Not the deadline, not the budget, not the staffing, but the people we serve. Our families and communities will be stronger because of our success at serving all these people together.

We’re so inspired by the GetCalFresh team, to be better, be different, to think different, to work differently, and grateful to take that forward.

And with that, we want to end where we always begin, by listening to the stories that drive us, that feed us, and that got us to this point. Thank you Get CalFresh. Thank you Code.

Caitlin Docker:

Thank you.

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