This afternoon, I appeared on KPBS’ Midday Edition to discuss how long hold times on San Diego County’s food-stamps help line are making it hard for low-income residents to apply.

Here’s the audio from today’s show.

County officials said they weren’t available to join us for the conversation, but Supervisor Greg Cox did send over a statement. And he dropped a bit of news.

He said the county’s Health and Human Services Agency was hiring 65 new eligibility workers to process food stamp applications.

That’s big news.

A lack of staff is one major reason that applicants for the program have a hard time getting through to county workers to move their applications along. As I reported this week, the phone line the county launched to make applying easier is now making callers sit on hold for longer periods than ever before, and is dropping more than 80 percent of all calls. Last month, it got 462,000. Only 82,000 of them got through, and among those, the average hold time was more than 39 minutes.

In a recent interview, Dale Fleming, the county official overseeing food stamps, said the county started its call center with 56 operators two-and-a-half years ago, and has increased that number to 74 as more calls have come in.

But those were not new workers. They were office workers who had previously helped applicants in person. They were shifted over to the call center instead.

Now the county is adding 65 new workers. Jennifer Tracy, program director for the San Diego Hunger Coalition, called the hiring of that many new people good news. Applications for food stamps have ballooned in recent years. There were 13,135 new applications filed last month, compared to 6,247 in September 2008.

It’s still unclear how many of the 65 new workers will be used to relieve pressure on the inundated phone line.

A county spokeswoman said that the agency will hire the workers throughout the next year but didn’t yet know where they would be assigned.

Also on Tuesday, the county Board of Supervisors voted to accept a $700,000 grant the county was awarded to develop a nutrition education program, and a $900,000 grant to develop a more efficient tracking system for food stamps applications.

The county’s social service programs, and its food-stamp system in particular, have been plagued by problems. Last year, a voiceofsandiego.org special report found that supervisors’ resistance to fund social services and a political culture intent on rooting out fraud had made it difficult for eligible residents to get benefits.

The county regularly ranks last in metro areas around the country in enrolling eligible residents in the food-stamps program.

Adrian Florido is a reporter for voiceofsandiego.org. He covers San Diego’s neighborhoods. What should he write about next?

Contact him directly at adrian.florido@voiceofsandiego.org or at 619.325.0528.

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Adrian Florido

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

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