Success story

Simplifying California’s Online Application for Food Benefits

We reimagined the process of applying for food benefits in California with an accessible, mobile-first digital application assister

Impact

  • We’ve helped 6.3 million people in California get food benefits since 2017—which adds up to over $11.5 billion dollars.
  • We’re helping close the participation gap between those who are eligible for benefits and those who claim them. In 2014, when GetCalFresh was launched, the SNAP participation rate in California was 66%. By 2020, it had risen to 77%.
  • Around 73% of online SNAP applications in California are submitted through GetCalFresh.

The challenge

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is one of America’s most effective anti-poverty programs, helping families with low incomes purchase food and maintain adequate nutrition. But the process of applying for food benefits is often full of administrative burdens that keep people from enrolling in the program. 

In 2014, the SNAP participation rate (the number of people who are eligible for and participating in the program) in California was 66% or 3.9 million people. People did have the ability to apply for CalFresh (the name of California’s SNAP program) online, but there were three different application systems, depending on the county you lived in. The various applications took applicants through over 100 screens, asking repetitive and often unnecessary questions.  

There was enormous potential to meaningfully close the SNAP participation gap in the country’s most populous state, if only there were an accessible, digital enrollment experience that was designed around people’s needs.

Our approach

GetCalFresh.org first launched as an alternative way to apply for CalFresh online. The site acted as a digital enrollment assister, asking simple, straightforward questions, and letting you know when your application had been successfully submitted. The initial pilot version of GetCalFresh ran in five counties, showing local governments that it was possible to create digital services that are simple, effective, and easy to use. 

We gathered learnings from GetCalFresh clients, improving and iterating on the service as we scaled to serve more and more counties. We continuously improved accessibility by refining language used in the application to better reflect how clients think about their household and income situations, and added multiple languages as the product scaled. We built out a live chat support team to help clients when they had questions or got stuck during the application process. We added features like a document uploader that would help clients securely upload supporting personal information they needed to provide to receive benefits.

Along the way, we shared learnings and best practices with our government partners at the county and state levels along the way, helping to inform design and technology choices they made in their own government-run digital services. 

Screenshot of the homepage of GetCalFresh.org

GetCalFresh is an example of how innovation in government can be safely piloted, monitored for improvement opportunities, and scaled at a pace that always keeps the human experience with the digital service front and center.

Throughout our time working with California, we’ve drawn on the knowledge of many disciplines: human-centered design, quantitative and qualitative research, software engineers, product management, and more. In partnership with state administrators, benefits caseworkers, and clients themselves, we created a product that simplifies the process for everyone involved and sets a standard for other states to imitate.

Outcomes

GetCalFresh was one of our earliest and best success stories in proving human-centered design can help government better serve people at scale. GetCalFresh launched in 2014, and expanded to serve clients in more than half of the counties in California by 2018. In 2019, it was adopted as a statewide assister service and the primary online application portal for CalFresh benefits.

Before GetCalFresh launched, California was known for having one of the most complex food assistance application processes in the country. Today, GetCalFresh provides a simple solution to apply for SNAP online. As of 2024, it has helped 6.3 million households access more than $11.5 billion in food assistance.

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