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CalOptima promotes CalFresh enrollment to address food insecurity

CalFresh issues a monthly Electronic Benefit Transfer card to its members, which can be used to buy fresh produce.
CalFresh issues a monthly Electronic Benefit Transfer card to its members, which can be used to buy fresh produce.
(Sarah Mosqueda)

“There are two ways of treating people’s medical issues,” said CalOptima’s Chief Medical Officer Dr. Richard Pitts, “prevention and treatment.”

Pitts said access to fresh fruits and vegetables is a major part of healthcare, or more specifically, preventive care. But Orange County residents struggling with food insecurity and the rising cost of food may have trouble accessing healthy and affordable products.

To help increase membership, CalOptima is collaborating with CalFresh, the state’s largest food program, which provides monthly food benefits for eligible low-income people. CalOptima has identified more than 340,000 members who may be eligible to access nutritious foods for a better diet by enrolling in CalFresh.

“The idea behind CalFresh is to address some of the social determinants of health, in particular food. And not only food insecurity but also the quality of the food,” Pitts said.

CalOptima is working with the County of Orange Social Services Agency (SSA) to streamline the enrollment process using an improved phone line transfer between the agencies.

“We have the same interests,” Pitts said. “Why do we have to duplicate the effort? We are trying to make this as easy as possible.”

Last month, CalOptima’s board of directors approved up to $2 million for a CalFresh awareness campaign to combat rising food insecurity in its member population.

The campaign encourages enrollment through mail, phone and text message outreach. Special events at grocery stores and food banks are also planned, and enrollment will be promoted through health networks, providers and community-based organizations.

The amount of benefits a household receives depends on household size, income and monthly expenses. The program issues a monthly Electronic Benefit Transfer card, and food can be purchased at any grocery store or farmers market that accepts EBT cards. Depending on income and expenses, an individual may receive up to $250 and a family of four up to $835 through a CalFresh debit-type card.

A local store displays a sticker stating it accepts Electronic Benefit Transfer or EBT cards.
A local store displays a sticker stating it accepts Electronic Benefit Transfer
or EBT cards.
(Sarah Mosqueda)

“It is helping me a lot, especially right now that I am having a tough time and not working,” said Martha Barcenas, who has been enrolled in CalFresh for a little less than a year. “It helps a lot because this is the way I can feed my baby.”

Barcenas first heard about CalFresh from a co-worker, and she applied with help from the Community Health Initiative of Orange County, an organization that aims to make healthcare more equitable in Orange County.

Outreach from CalOptima could be beneficial to O.C. residents like Barcenas, who said she knows many aren’t aware of the available help.

“I know that there is a lot of need out there for CalFresh,” Barcenas said, “but a lot of people don’t know about the benefits.”

CalOptima board of directors chair, Supervisor Andrew Do, said he is confident CalOptima can make a difference for Orange County’s food insecure.

“As the single largest health insurer in Orange County, CalOptima helps members access the community resources they need to live healthier lives, including having a reliable way to purchase fresher, less processed food options.”

Pitts echoed the same sentiment.

“This campaign is just one example of how CalOptima is addressing the social determinants of health, which are the non-medical factors that affect members’ lives.”

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