Illustrated by Elena Lacey
A few years ago, Elizabeth Alvarez struggled to buy healthy food for herself and her daughters. That’s when Elizabeth, who was going through a divorce due to domestic violence, took a class on self-esteem and mental health from Providence Little Company of Mary’s Wellness and Activity Center. There she learned about CalFresh: the state food stamp program that helps low-income people put healthy and nutritious food on the table.
“In the beginning I wasn’t so sure, because I didn’t know what the program was and what you needed for verification,” says Elizabeth. Staff from Providence’s Community Health department helped her work through the application and answered her questions.
The team of community health workers helped 3,693 individuals apply for benefits in 2019.
“Community health workers from Providence's Community Health Insurance and Calfresh program assists clients and patients by educating and enrolling them into the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (also known as Calfresh in California), to help bring healthy and nutritious food to their homes,” says Jennifer Rodriguez, Supervisor for the CalFresh program for Providence Little Company of Mary's Community Health Department. They partner with agencies like food pantries, churches and schools.
The health workers also try to bust any myths that exist in low-income communities. It can be tough to convince a client who’s eligible to apply, Jennifer explains. Some are concerned that receiving CalFresh benefits will affect their eligibility for financial aid (it won't). Others worry they may be asked to pay back the benefits (they won't). And the biggest fear is whether or not the information is shared with immigration authorities (it's not). “We are there to tell them what is true and what’s not,” says Jennifer.
In 2016 the medical center did a community health needs assessment, to identify and prioritize the most pressing health needs in the area, says Justin Joe, Director of Community Health at Providence Little Company of Mary. “Poverty and food insecurity came up as two of the top needs.” It was a new area for the hospital, but one that seemed like a natural fit. “People can’t be healthy without access to healthy food.”
Since the outreach team had been assisting with insurance applications for over 10 years—helping people sign up for state programs like Medi-Cal—it made a lot of sense to help them sign up for CalFresh as well, especially since the income requirements are similar. “We can create a one-stop shop for people,” says Justin.
Most of the community work takes place in the South Bay, Westside and San Fernando Valley. Providence has become a community partner with Los Angeles County to get access to their online portal for CalFresh applications. “We can utilize this tool to more easily sign people up for benefits,” says Jennifer. “We don’t have to have people send in long applications in the mail—we have laptops and bilingual workers who go out in the community to churches, food pantries, clinics and schools.”
For its part, the community health workers from Providence Little Company of Mary helped 1,529 individuals apply for benefits in 2017, the first full year of the outreach program. By 2019, they had assisted 3,693 annually.
Food and health are intrinsically linked. Numerous studies connect food insecurity with a higher risk of chronic diseases like diabetes and heart problems. “If you don’t have money for food, you’re going to buy cheap food, which tends to be unhealthy,” says Justin. “For preventing obesity and chronic diseases, it makes sense to invest upstream.”
And from a mission standpoint, it makes sense to be helping people who are suffering because they can’t put enough food on the table. “When we have this beneficial resource available, but people don’t know about it or they are scared of accessing it, it provides us with a role to bridge that gap,” he adds.
For Elizabeth Alvarez, the CalFresh benefits have had a tangible impact. “It has been very important in my life because I can now buy healthy food for both my daughters, and also it took me out of a very big, dark place. I wouldn’t have known what to do without the help.”
Updated March 3, 2020 to reflect more recent data.
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