Lena is a single mom with two children. She was working as a gig delivery driver when her car broke down, leaving her without transportation or income to cover repairs. She’s getting used to skipping meals so her kids won’t go hungry when she hears from a friend about SNAP: the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
She wants to apply, but she can only access the internet on her cell phone and the application requires a desktop computer. She goes to the library on Sunday, the only day she can get a ride, and finds that the application is closed on that day of the week. The following Saturday, Lena takes two bus rides back, determined to try again.
After nearly an hour spent answering confusing and repetitive questions, Lena finally hits “submit.” She doesn’t get a confirmation message, and is left wondering if the application even went through. Weeks later, she checks her P.O. Box and finds a letter about an interview, scheduled for the previous day. She calls the SNAP office, and after hours on hold, learns that her only option is to start over.
Lena’s story is a common one, experienced by millions of people across the United States. We believe that everyone should have an easy, dignified experience enrolling in and accessing their food benefits.
Our work to improve access to food benefits is anchored in five principles that inform the design of any social service or benefit program:
Many Welcoming Doors
Provide an equitable experience however people choose to access services
Easy to Understand
Enable access to information to understand case status and next steps at any moment
Informed decision-making presenting timely context and recommendations
Responsive to Changing Needs
Readily adapt to changes in user needs, technology, policy and budget
Offer guided and actionable workflows that reduce burden and time
We tackle administrative barriers to unlock benefits, increase participation, and reduce expensive and destabilizing churn. After nearly a decade working on SNAP access, we’ve found four barriers that are significant drivers of the gap between eligibility and enrollment:
- Logistical issues such as computer/online access, transportation barriers, and lack of child care
- Stigma resulting from poor quality of service or treatment, experienced directly or shared by community members
- Misinformation about or lack of awareness of eligibility
- Fear of consequences, including the inability to gain permanent residency or citizenship, repayment, deportation, and child removal
These barriers are symptoms of a system that was never designed to function around client needs. Today’s systems rely heavily on paper forms, confusing websites, and in-person office visits. They often require multiple touchpoints, in-person and by mail. Enrollment processes can drag on for weeks, and there is considerable friction between steps that delay or disrupt completion.
Communication is often formal and intimidating, with many forms that contain misleading or threatening language, fail to be lingually or culturally relevant, and rarely allow for corrections or edits. Enrollment processes are repetitive and inefficient across programs and services—which means that a significant percentage of those who receive one social benefit are under-enrolled in others for which they are eligible.
GetCalFresh helps people apply for CalFresh food assistance (California’s name for SNAP).
Our goal is to ensure that every Californian who needs CalFresh has an easy, dignified experience enrolling in and accessing their food benefits. GetCalFresh acts as a “digital enrollment assistant,” supporting people through each step of the eligibility and enrollment process on their mobile phone or computer. Once someone has applied through GetCalFresh, they receive text messages to confirm that their application was submitted, important reminders related to the enrollment process, and check-ins to see how their enrollment experience was.
GetCalFresh collaborates with state and local governments to improve the policy and the technology used to distribute food aid.
Through a partnership with the California Department of Social Services, GetCalFresh is now the only statewide access point for Calfresh serving all California counties. The participation gap between those who are eligible for the benefit and those who have access to it is shrinking. An enrollment process that used to be nearly impossible to complete without multiple phone calls and visits to the county office now only takes 12 minutes and can be done from a mobile phone. Code for America is proudly a CalFresh Outreach Contractor.
Code for America’s partnerships with county governments and state agencies have helped break down barriers to enrollment, given applicants empathetic resources to turn to when they have questions, and ensured more equitable outcomes for all Californians. Why stop here? We hope that one day, all benefits will be this easy to access. The GetCalFresh approach of removing barriers can be applied to SNAP and other social safety net programs nationwide. We are currently laying the groundwork for national expansion to help other states and federal agencies re-envision the digital enrollment experience.
Read more about the stories of people we serve.
Learn about our research with GetCalFresh applicants that explores how to make sure that people who are eligible for government benefits claim them
A comprehensive depiction of how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected people's lives and amplified the already existing difficulties of the benefits system
What we’ve seen in California and how other state agencies can prepare to respond
An urgent federal response is needed to streamline online SNAP enrollment and maximize capacity to deliver benefits.
Data insights from GetCalFresh on how the need for SNAP assistance has changed since California issued stay-at-home orders.
Hear from a panel of speakers who have spent their careers improving safety net outcomes and the delivery of government services.
People in need of government services are online. It just takes the right digital strategy to reach them.
The challenges people experiencing homelessness face in CalFresh enrollment based on 62,000 applications and 40 interviews
The stories behind the numbers
What people are saying about GetCalFresh
Can you help get food benefits to more people who need them?
Donate to support our safety net work today!