When county officials looked at the CalFresh participation rates in Yolo County, they were stunned to find they were among the lowest in the state on an annual basis. The question that they had to ask was why? The answer turned out to be UC Davis students.
“For a lot of us, we’ve heard this phrase forever, starving students,” Supervisor Don Saylor told the Vanguard. “It’s always a chuckle or a twinkle in the eye like that’s a funny thing.”
Many students choose to go through a period of low income in order to invest in their future, but, as Supervisor Saylor points out, “Many students truly are starving. This is a public university and we have many low income students from families who have put all their resources into the basic educational requirements for their kids.
“That’s a condition that we are hearing more about,” he said.
One of the oddities that we have learned about Yolo County is that, statistically speaking, it has a fairly high proportion of people who are eligible for services like CalFresh but a very low percentage of those people are actually accessing the available services.
Nolan Sullivan is Service Center Branch Director for Yolo County Health and Human Services Agency. He explained that Yolo County had historically ranked in the bottom 5 in the state in terms of participation rates.
Back in 2013 or 2014, he was presenting to the Yolo County Board of Supervisors, and Don Saylor called him on it – he wanted to know why Yolo County had participation rates in the forty percent range.
Don Saylor had first heard about this problem a few years earlier, as Kevin Concanon, at the time the Under Secretary for the US Department of Ag, explained that California was leaving billions of dollars of food support on the table based on low participation of eligible households in the SNAP program.
“California as a state, with our 38 million people, was ranked 50th among the 50 states for participation rates for eligible households,” Don Saylor explained. There were a number of macro-issues at the statewide level that drove the low participation, including fingerprint requirements and income eligibility checks every six months, among other issues.
CalFresh provides low income people who meet federal income eligibility requirements a way to put healthy and nutritious food on their table. The program adds monthly electronic benefits that can be used to buy most foods at many markets and food stores.
The Aggie Compass program provides a variety of ways for students to get food needs immediately. The Fruit and Veggie Up program provides free produce to qualified students two days a week and the Pantry provides non-perishable food and basic necessities such as toiletries. Students are required to present a valid UCD ID Card in order to take up to three items per day.
But as it turns out Yolo County had its own specific issues.
“Yolo County itself was in the bottom five in terms of participation in eligible households,” he said. “That really troubled me. It became an issue that I raised with the board and I raised with our staff.
“It wasn’t simply that there were statewide eligibility issues – there was something deeper afoot in Yolo County,” Supervisor Saylor explained.
It wasn’t hard for Nolan Sullivan to pinpoint the problem. If you looked at Yolo County, most of the major cities like Woodland, West Sacramento, Winters and even the rural areas were running at 80 percent participation. One city was not – Davis. Davis, according to Mr. Sullivan was running at around three percent participation.
The obvious reason was – UC Davis had a huge eligible population but a very low participation rate.
It also turns out there is a bit of a statistical quirk – the reason Yolo County was in the bottom five was that UC Davis represented such a sizable proportion of the county. Yolo County has by far the largest proportion of students in the state, with San Luis Obispo County a rather distant second.
However, while Yolo’s high student population caused the problem to stand out in Yolo County, it seems reasonable to believe that this is a problem across the state at universities.
“It’s not just numbers,” Don Saylor made it clear. It is not a “data aberration.” He explained, “The thing is these are real people. It’s not just numbers, it’s the reality that there are students at the UC Davis campus who are in need.
“We quickly realized that students at UC Davis are eligible for CalFresh if they’re eligible for Work Study,” Don Saylor explained.
However, filling out the application is complicated and cumbersome. The problem was twofold – students didn’t know they were eligible and they didn’t know how to apply. The challenge was to education students about the availability of services and to help guide them through the application process.
How can we increase access and participation among the eligible students at UC Davis to provide them with food support?
Nolan Sullivan explained that, while the government has not figured out how to streamline the application process, some private companies have created apps and other online techniques that have done so.
But the bigger factor has been increasing the presence of full time eligibility workers in the community, and particularly on campus. Recently Yolo County re-opened the administration building on A Street in Davis and, for the first time, there is full time access for Davis residents to services without having to drive to Woodland.
“We had to find a way in,” Don Saylor explained. “We had to find a way to access the students.”
The efforts began rather modestly with Health and Human Services Agency going to campus to participate at the fairs – with information tables. But these were mainly passive efforts.
But, for most of their efforts, “students wouldn’t come.
“We were just kind of scatter-shotting trying to find a way to make a difference,” he said. “We started realizing, we really had to go to where the students are in a way that they can receive the message and access it.”
He explained that they met with then-Associate Vice Chancellor Adela de La Torre, who, along with some her leadership team, brainstormed some ideas.
One of them was to embed eligibility workers in places like the Financial Aid Office and the Student Health Center. “That’s where students come if they have something they want to talk about,” Don Saylor explained.
In a few weeks, the Vanguard will tour the Aggie Compass. But these programs and efforts seem to be starting to payoff.
The data provided by Nolan Sullivan paints a dramatic picture. In July 2016, they had 149 applications and 1221 approved cases. By September of 2018, that number had increased to 853 applications and 2639 approved cases. In just two years, the number of applications have quadrupled while the number receiving assistance has more than doubled.
“We are seeing numbers of students who are applying and becoming eligible,” Don Saylor said. “Whether we can tip that data has become secondary to me… Data is a way to open up the conversation.”
He said, “We don’t think there should be hungry children.” He added, “In this region with its Mediterranean Climate that can feed the world, there should be no reason that any child should be hungry.”
—David M. Greenwald reporting