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San Diego County’s new system for more efficiently processing food stamps applications falls short of actually increasing efficiency, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service.

The county perennially ranks at the bottom nationwide in enrolling eligible residents in food stamps, and county officials have implemented a new business model they say will improve those rates.

The review does commend the county for those efforts. But the USDA worries about those who need food in the meantime:

While we are confident that the County will continue efforts to address both the cumbersome processes as well as the problems associated with the new business model, we remain concerned that families in need of basic services, specifically food, are negatively impacted in the interim.

This review found that the county implemented its new business model — which switched its operations from a single caseworker for an applicant, to a “task-based” system where multiple workers touch various aspect of each case — poorly.

The USDA said the effort was “too rushed and lacking necessary management and staff involvement and controls due to the short time allowed for development and implementation.” As a result, there are barriers for not just new applicants but for existing applicants trying to stay on the program, the review said.

Some of these barriers echoed those we heard in our recent special report, Out of Reach, focused on the county’s poor rankings in administering social welfare benefits.

The agency reviewed 280 cases at three county offices in San Diego for two weeks in November and December, and visited the county’s new call center. They released their findings last week. They also include perspective from local advocates, and reviews the county’s civil rights performance in addition to its access to benefits.

The review points out several “choke points” within the system:

  • Long waits: Though the county has a new emphasis on processing applications the same day they come in, long waits in the office “result in some applicants leaving before they can be seen by a worker.”
  • Lost documents: “All three [county Family Resource Centers] routinely lose documents which contributes to multiple trips to the FRCs by clients to submit and often resubmit lost verifications or other documents.”
  • Dropped calls The county’s new call center, ACCESS, “was not adequately staffed and did not have enough lines.” USDA reviewers called the 1-800 number themselves to see how it worked. Those callers “failed on numerous occasions or had extreme difficulty reaching a live person. … Because of the ACCESS system’s limitations, there is, at this time, no way of knowing the number or percentage of calls that are automatically being dropped by the system when all lines are in use.”
  • Unnecessary Anti-Fraud Holdups: The review examines the county’s Project 100% program, its anti-fraud investigation program for welfare recipients. Food stamps applications are not supposed to be subject to a Project 100% review without suspicion, and the review criticized the county for holding up applicants’ food stamps requests after their welfare application, CalWORKs, was awaiting fraud review, or after the applicants had dropped their welfare application altogether. “Similarly, it was found that all cases involving homeless applicants are referred for a fraud investigation,” the review stated, even though the county “cannot require all homeless applicants to undergo a Welfare Fraud investigation to confirm residency as [food stamps] fraud investigations must be based on a reasonable suspicion.” The review recommends the county reevaluate Project 100%.

The review was a regular function of the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service and released to the county last week. Congresswoman Susan Davis also distributed the findings this afternoon, along with a letter she sent the USDA to review San Diego County’s performance, after our special report was published.

The report also reviews San Diego County’s compliance with civil rights mandates in its food stamps program. Stay tuned for another post on that piece of the review.

— KELLY BENNETT

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