As the weak economy battered families across California, food stamp use nearly doubled since 2006. But in San Diego County, the spike has been even more dramatic. Food stamp use has nearly tripled here.

Despite that jump, recent statistics show that San Diego may still only be getting food stamps to about one-third of the people who qualify for them, offering a glimpse of just how many San Diegans may be struggling to put food on the table.

As of September, about 237,000 people were receiving food stamps in the county, up from 83,000 in September 2006, according to a recent analysis by the California Food Policy Advocates, an anti-hunger group. The county has had the third-largest increase in food stamp enrollment in the state.

The recession has increased demand for food stamps in San Diego, as it has in all counties. But San Diego County has also historically done worse than others in getting food stamps to people who qualify for them, consistently ranking last among 22 major urban areas in the nation and near last among California counties.

That’s left officials with more room to increase enrollment here as they have implemented various reforms to make the process easier for applicants.

Last year, a special report found that the county’s focus on rooting out fraud rather than enrolling eligible people had made it difficult for them to get benefits.

In the face of criticism from advocates and the federal government, county officials adopted several reforms aimed at increasing enrollment. Among other changes, the county has made it easier to apply, no longer requiring as many office visits.

“The county has done a lot to open the doors for eligible people and make sure they get the benefits they’re eligible for,” said Jennifer Tracy, a program coordinator at the San Diego Hunger Coalition, which has worked with the county to streamline the food stamp application process.

But it’s still unclear how much of an impact those changes have had in enrolling a larger proportion of people who are eligible for food stamps. It’s not known whether the recession or the increased outreach make San Diego’s participation figures stand out. That may only become more clear when more recent data becomes available.

Tracy and other advocates who work closely with the food stamp program still report persistent hurdles for applicants, including long wait times and dropped calls on the phone line that’s supposed to help them, improperly denied applications and frequently lost documents.

Those types of problems have all contributed to the county’s low enrollment rates. Its recent reforms aim to address that, but recent analyses show progress in enrolling more eligible people has still been slow.

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An analysis by California Food Policy Advocates, the anti-hunger group, found that only 34 percent of all San Diego residents who meet a few key eligibility requirements were enrolled in the program as of 2009, the most recent year available.

While that was a 7 percentage point increase over the year before, it still ranked San Diego County 53rd among the state’s 58 counties for enrolling people who are eligible for food stamps, according to the analysis.

In January, similar research by a national anti-hunger group found that roughly 40 percent of eligible people were enrolled for food stamps in San Diego as of 2008, the lowest rate among 22 of the nation’s largest urban areas.

The analyses vary because of differences in the way those figures are calculated. Pinning down the total number of people who are actually eligible for food stamps in a county can be tricky because it depends on a long list of eligibility requirements that are always changing, like income, immigration status or other benefits people might be receiving.

Regardless, both figures continue to place San Diego at or near the bottom of the rankings nationally and statewide for enrolling eligible people.

Dale Fleming, a director in the county department that oversees food stamps, was not available for an interview, a spokeswoman said. She only agreed to respond to questions sent by email.

Asked whether the county’s historic failure to enroll eligible people affected the county’s huge increase in food stamp recipients, the spokeswoman, Lisa Contreras, wrote: “We do not agree.”

She did not elaborate about why.

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

Contact him directly at or at 619.325.0528.

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

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