Perhaps no one was more surprised than Bill Oswald when, last week, the county Board of Supervisors agreed to consider a long list of recommendations for improving the county’s flawed food stamps program.

The Springfield College professor and outspoken critic of the program helped draft the 69 recommendations with a group of nonprofit leaders who have long advocated reforming the county’s social service programs to make them more accessible to the poor.

The supervisors’ unanimous vote is the latest step in a slow march toward reform of a program that’s notorious as one of the nation’s least successful in enrolling eligible residents.

“We’re feeling pretty good about what happened,” Oswald said. “We got further on this than we ever thought we would.”

The group, which was convened by the supervisors, drafted the recommendations to address some of the long-standing problems that have plagued the food stamp program. As our special report found earlier this year, supervisors’ resistance to fund social services amid cuts in state funding and an entrenched political culture intent on rooting out fraud have created roadblocks for residents eligible to receive benefits.

The group’s recommendations on how to reform the program ranged from administrative reforms, like more effective translation services, a user-friendly website, and reduced telephone hold times, to broader institutional reforms, including a “culture change” that includes making county offices more inviting and consequences for staff that make errors resulting in denial or delay of benefits for eligible residents.

The group also recommended that the county create a mobile enrollment program designed to reach and eligible residents in remote parts of the county who lack transportation, that it use television and radio ads to encourage more people to apply, and that eligibility workers be better trained to understand eligibility rules.

A key and immediate priority, Oswald said, was revising the manual for administering the food stamp program to ensure consistency and avoid staff confusion about who’s eligible.

“It’s what all the workers use when they handle a case and they have to know what to do,” Oswald said. “The program guide in some places contradicts state law and in some cases it contradicts itself.” That confuses workers and frustrating applicants who think or know they’re eligible, he said.

One of those applicants is Mahalia Sortillon. She called into KPBS’s Editors Roundtable last week to air her frustrations at how the food stamp program is administered:

I am constantly made — told that I’m ineligible, and it’s just constantly one hearing after the other. My next hearing is coming here in December, and they basically are taking away my food stamps saying that my household changed because I’m not a citizen. But I am an eligible resident alien. And so it’s just been one after another, they find every reason they can to make you ineligible for your services.

Last week, the supervisors said they understood the program needed changes.

“It’s clear we’re making some progress,” Supervisor Ron Roberts said, according to the North County Times. “But it’s also clear we’ve got a ways to go yet.”

The group, which also included representatives from the San Diego Hunger Coalition and the San Diego Food Bank, has now been dissolved, but its members say they’ll continue to closely watch the implementation recommendations presented to the supervisors by county staff.

“The bottom line is they have to change the culture from a place that sees every person as a potential thief to a place that wants to help people,” Oswald said.

Please contact Adrian Florido directly at adrian.florido@voiceofsandiego.org or at 619.325.0528 and follow him on Twitter: twitter.com/adrianflorido.

Adrian Florido

Adrian Florido is a former staff writer for Voice of San Diego.

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