Sept. 26 2012 01:12 AM

San Diego County makes progress on ACCESS wait times, still lags on food-stamps enrollment

Advocates say long lines, like this one at the Family Resource Center in El Cajon, can deter people from applying for food stamps.
Photo by Dave Maass

During the last few years, San Diego County's gotten grief for how it administers CalFresh, California's name for the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps. In February, the consulting firm Intelegy, hired to investigate problems with the county's ACCESS call center, which was set up in 2010 to assist folks applying for public benefits, found that callers were waiting more than half an hour for someone to assist them—and those were the callers who got through. In September 2011 alone, Intelegy found, ACCESS dropped 406,000 calls.

After Intelegy's report was released in February, the county, spurred on by its Social Services Advisory Board (SSAB), vowed to overhaul ACCESS. According to a status report given at this month's SSAB meeting, the average ACCESS wait time in August was 22 minutes and 21 seconds—a 15-minute improvement from a year ago. The county added 20 new employees to the call center in June and another 18 in August. The county also added staff to its Family Resource Centers (FRCs), per Intelegy's recommendation—34 in August, with another 39 expected to take their posts before the end of the year.

The SSAB got additional good news from recent surveys of 381 folks at the county's 10 FRCs. The voluntary, anonymous surveys found that nine out of 10 people felt they were treated with respect, six out of 10 were in and out of the FRC in an hour or less and eight out of 10 were satisfied with their experience.

"We see these as a benchmark and an opportunity to improve," Craig Sturak, an analyst with the county's Health and Human Services Agency, told the advisory board.

Streamlining the food-stamps application process and improving the culture at FRCs were two things advocates have been urging the county to do for the last few years. Boosting enrollment numbers has been a focus, too. Reports from state and national advoacy organizations have consistently ranked San Diego County at or near the bottom when it comes to participation rates.

To see where the county currently stands among California's seven largest counties (Los Angeles, Orange, San Diego, Riverside, San Bernardino, Alameda and Santa Clara), CityBeat employed the methodology that California Food Policy Advocates uses for its annual Program Access Index report, which measures food-stamps participation across California. Using the most recent (2011) county-level poverty data, released by the U.S. Census Bureau last week, and each of the seven county's monthly average food-stamps enrollment for 2011, CityBeat found that while San Diego has boosted its enrollment since 2010, the county ranks last among California's seven largest counties. San Bernardino was first, followed by Riverside, Alameda, Los Angeles, Santa Clara and Orange.

Email or follow her on Twitter at @citybeatkelly.


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