Despite persistent economic woes, California leaves billions of federal food stamp dollars on the table each year that could help ease hunger and boost the local economy, officials say.
Only 48% of eligible Californians are enrolled in the nutrition program, according to
, the most recent year available. That is well below the national average of 66%. Only Wyoming has a slightly lower rate.
California officials dispute the way the figures are calculated and say they do not reflect recent steps to improve the state's record, including greater outreach and simplified procedures.
As of December, more than 3 million people, about 1 in 11 California residents, were receiving food stamps, according to state figures. That is nearly 46% more than in December 2007. Because the number of people eligible for the program has soared during the recession, it is unclear whether the participation rate has gone up.
Federal officials say the state has taken steps in the right direction but needs to do more to improve access to the program.
"We're concerned that there are people, particularly in this economy, who need help putting healthy food on the table and aren't getting that assistance," said Jean Daniel, spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food and Nutrition Service.
Potential recipients aren't the only ones losing out. Last year, California residents received $4.8 billion in food stamps.
Federal officials estimate that every $5 in benefits generates as much as $9.20 in economic activity by freeing income that would otherwise be spent on food and creating business for local companies. Many of these purchases are subject to sales tax, boosting state revenue.
A number of factors contribute to California's lagging participation.
Welfare offices are overwhelmed by demand and cannot afford the staff to cope, said Frank Mecca, executive director of the County Welfare Directors Assn. That leads to frustrating delays for applicants.
, lines often stretch out the door. Applicants complain that they can't get through by telephone and have to wait hours to see a social worker. Some are told to come back with pay stubs, doctors' notes and other documents to show they meet complex income, savings, work and immigration requirements.
Some needy people decide the program is too cumbersome for the modest benefit it provides -- an average of $137 per recipient per month in California last year.
In other cases, newly unemployed residents don't know they are eligible for the program or are embarrassed to ask for help.
Sherrie Gutherie spent more than 20 years as a charity fundraiser and never imagined she would need help. Three years ago, Gutherie, 64, lost her job at a Los Angeles call center, then was diagnosed with cancer and had three operations.
"It's just so overwhelming," she said. "With cancer, you need more greens, and I can't afford it because I'm borrowing money for the rent."
Los Angeles County officials say they have made progress in reaching people like Gutherie. She recently filled out an application with the help of a social worker contracted to make weekly visits to a food pantry Gutherie uses in Monrovia.
But other counties have had to curtail such outreach efforts because of tight budgets, Mecca said.
For years the state has restricted the amount it pays counties to administer the food stamp program, leaving them tens of millions of dollars short of what they need, Mecca said.
The federal government pays for the food stamp benefit itself and for half of the administrative costs. The rest are shared between the state and county governments.
Many of those who steer clear of the program are immigrants. California is home to the nation's largest foreign-born population, many of whom don't realize that they can apply if they have lived in the United States legally for five years, community advocates say. Others are put off by rumors that there could be repercussions to receiving the benefit, or they struggle to complete the paperwork.
Rosa and her husband, a restaurant worker earning $1,000 a month, arrived from Mexico 12 years ago and remain here illegally. Their two daughters, ages 10 and 3, were born in the U.S.
Their younger daughter needs hormone replacement treatment each month, and the family will go without meat for a week to pay for it, Rosa said. But she refuses to apply for food stamps for the girls, who are citizens and thus eligible for the benefit.
"I'm afraid that immigration is going to deport me," said Rosa, 35. "My world would end."
She spoke on condition that her full name not be used.
Rosa's teacher at an English program in Los Angeles assured her that information she provides to social services would not be passed on to immigration officials, but the woman appeared unconvinced.
Another woman in the class said she heard that receiving food stamps would make her family a "public charge," a designation that could prevent its members from obtaining green cards, even if they are in the country legally. Still others thought their children would be drafted or have money docked from future Social Security checks. None of those assertions is true.
California is one of only four states that require food stamp recipients to be fingerprinted, which critics say drives away some potential applicants.
"They shouldn't make you feel like a criminal if you need to apply for food stamps," said Frank Tamborello of Hunger Action Los Angeles.
USDA officials say there are cheaper, less time-consuming ways to thwart fraud. Most states match names against Social Security numbers, said Daniel, the agency spokeswoman. But state officials worry that such checks are less effective in California because counties use incompatible computer systems. Rather than eliminate fingerprinting, California now gives applicants a year to meet that requirement.
Those who qualify for food stamps can lose the benefit if they don't keep up with the paperwork. California is the only state that requires most recipients to report their income every three months. Most states have reduced reporting requirements to twice a year.
Paul Madory, an unemployed construction worker, was on his way to a grocery store recently when he stopped at a Hollywood ATM to check the balance on his food stamps benefit card. To his dismay, there was nothing there.
Madory, 40, knew there had to be a mistake: "I still had money on my card."
Confused and hungry, he called the information line and was told he had not sent in the latest forms. Madory, who moves frequently between hotels, friends' homes and the streets, said he never received them. It took him nearly a week to raise bus fare to the nearest office to get his benefits restored.
"The social services worker said they had probably sent my reapplication papers in the mail before they had filed my change-of-address form," Madory said.
In September, federal officials asked California to take steps to convert to semiannual reporting. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed a bill in 2005 to make that change because it also would have eliminated fingerprinting for food stamp applicants who aren't seeking cash aid.
"Our first responsibility to taxpayers is to take necessary steps to prevent fraud and abuse in public programs," Schwarzenegger wrote in his veto letter.
But officials say California has taken other steps to simplify the program.
The state has waived the asset limit for households with children, so they don't have to use up their savings to receive benefits. It gives counties the option to do eligibility interviews by phone, so people don't have to take time off work. And it allows recipients who might not have a kitchen to use their benefits at restaurants.
John Wagner, director of the California Department of Social Services, says
the federal government's participation figures are outdated.
"A lot of the efforts that the state of California and counties have implemented since 2007 won't even be reflected in those numbers because of how old they are," Wagner said.
Officials also note that California is the only state that provides elderly and disabled recipients of federal Supplemental Security Income an additional $10 per month in lieu of food stamps. If those individuals were instead required to apply for food stamps, the state's participation rate would come out better, Wagner said, but not all supplemental security recipients would qualify.
The California Budget Project, which lobbies for low-income families, said in a recent
that adjusting the calculation to take account of such initiatives might improve California's ranking. But that "would not alter the fact that nearly 2.2 million eligible Californians failed to receive food stamp benefits" in 2007.
Zavis is a Times staff writer. Mutert is a graduate student at USC's Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism. Mutert began reporting for this story as part of her work on a multimedia series, Hunger in the Golden State, produced by Annenberg graduate students in collaboration with California Watch, a project of the Center for Investigative Reporting. The series is available at