Many Americans have suffered greatly through this Great Recession. Businesses have closed their doors. Workers have lost their jobs. And families have found themselves stretching their budgets to pay for basic necessities like groceries.

The county of San Diego has seen firsthand the impact of the struggling economy, especially with the increase in applications for public assistance programs such as CalFresh, formerly known as the food stamp program. This surge has posed a real challenge for our Health and Human Services Agency, coming at the same time local government resources are strained by a serious decrease in revenue.

As the recession took hold, we began to streamline our system, including developing the ACCESS Customer Service Center, using GIS mapping to identify school districts with high enrollment in school lunches but low food stamp enrollment, creating an opportunity for food stamps to be used at farmers markets and prescreening clients through the 2-1-1 telephone network.

Yet the increasing demand for food stamps shows us that even more needs to be done.

That is why last year we took the unprecedented step of inviting an ad-hoc group of advocates, professionals and our harshest critics to develop recommendations for improving efficiencies in the food stamp application process.

Formed as a volunteer subcommittee of the Social Services Advisory Board, this group held a series of meetings during the fall of this past year. Its members took a deep dive into the logistics and operations of the system, and then returned with carefully thought-out recommendations.

It was not an easy process. Feelings were strong and attendees were passionate about the changes they wanted pursued. Insight was gained and compromises forged. Each of these citizen volunteers should be commended for their work on this critical issue.

Last month, the Board of Supervisors took another major step in its continuing efforts to improve the system by formally receiving the subcommittee’s recommendations and submitting them to our Chief Administrative Officer.

During that hearing, leading activists for the expansion of the use of food stamps took to the microphone in support of our efforts. They included representatives from 211 San Diego, San Diego Food Bank, San Diego Hunger Coalition, San Diego Legal Aid Society, Caring Council and Supportive Parents Information Network.

All of the study’s recommendations will be analyzed. A plan will be brought to the board for improving the efficiencies of the food stamp application process, one that can be prudently implemented and will best serve the public seeking that form of county assistance.

It is worth noting that as this subcommittee met, county social services employees had already begun making some of the recommended changes to improve the system. They included:

  • Cross-training employees in all public assistance programs to speed up the application process.
  • Implementing an electronic application system known as One-E-App, which has significantly reduced the processing of some food stamp applications.

Steps like these and others have contributed to a more than 60 percent increase in food stamp participation since April 2009, with 210,101 recipients as of Nov. 30, 2010.

In the past, some have criticized the county for not being as responsive to the situation as they would like. Unfortunately, there remain great misunderstandings about the food stamp system.

For example, some critics believe that the county requires fingerprints for food stamp applications, when in fact it is a state requirement. In a pilot case we are accepting “voice” fingerprints during phone applications.

During personal visits to the family resource centers where most of the food stamp applications are processed we have met with those who work on the front lines. Please let us assure you that county employees want to help people who need, and are eligible for, food stamps.

We look to build on this momentum and to see that every individual and family that is legally eligible for food stamps and applies for the benefit receives it in an efficient, courteous and timely manner.

We will continue to look for ways to improve the system and get help to San Diego County residents in need.

Greg Cox represents San Diego’s First Supervisorial District and Ron Roberts represents Fourth Supervisorial District 4.

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