For the last 4 ½ decades, as California’s cost of living has soared, some of the state’s neediest — and hungriest — residents have been unable to use the CalFresh program or its predecessor, food stamps, to put healthy meals on the table.
That will change in June when recipients of Supplemental Security Income, a federal program that provides monthly payments to low-income seniors and people with disabilities, will be given access to CalFresh, which can provide hundreds of dollars a month to help households buy healthy foods.
Starting Wednesday, SSI recipients can begin applying for CalFresh in time to start receiving the benefits in June.
While the change might seem small, it’s a big deal for some of the city’s most vulnerable residents, said Noelle Simmons, deputy director of economic support and self-sufficiency programs for San Francisco’s Human Services Agency.
In San Francisco, it could nearly double the 48,000 people who currently use CalFresh at grocery stores, farmer’s markets and restaurants. Across the nine-county Bay Area, an additional 190,000 people could use the benefits, while 1.3 million more residents statewide could become eligible.
“This is a really significant expansion of the safety net for older Americans and disabled people,” Simmons said.
Recent studies estimated that between a quarter and a third of San Francisco residents are susceptible to food insecurity or not knowing where their next meal will come from. Seniors and the disabled are among the most likely to be at risk of missing meals, Simmons said.
Mel Beetle, a 79-year-old who lives in a South of Market single-room-occupancy hotel for seniors, expects to eat more regularly once he can use CalFresh.
Beetle has high blood pressure and diabetes, is blind in his left eye and survived a massive stroke in 2004. Meals on Wheels delivers two meals a day, he said, and he tries to eat three. But because he limits carbohydrates to control his diabetes, he can’t eat every delivered meal, and he can’t always afford to go out and buy more food.
“Once I can go out and get fresh food (with CalFresh), I can eat three meals a day every day,” Beetle said.
He plans to use CalFresh to buy mostly protein, especially chicken and fish, as well as fruits and vegetables to help him manage his diet.
Those who qualify based on income can obtain a CalFresh electronic benefit card, which looks like a credit or debit card. Funds are loaded monthly to buy what the program considers healthy foods. These include fruits and vegetables, beans, fish, poultry and meat, rice, bread, tortillas and cereals, milk and cheese, and seeds and plants for growing food. CalFresh cards cannot be used to purchase alcohol, tobacco, pet food and prepared or hot foods, except in a handful of counties that offer restaurant benefits.
Alameda and San Francisco are among 10 counties that offer a restaurant meals program, allowing the card to be used to buy meals at participating businesses.
CalFresh cardholders’ monthly funds vary by the number of people in a qualifying household, as well as their incomes and expenses. A single person can receive up to $192 a month, while a family of four receives a monthly maximum of $642. The average household receives about $300 per month.
San Francisco plans to kick off a publicity blitz in May to let SSI recipients know they will soon qualify for CalFresh, said Chandra Johnson, spokeswoman for the Human Services Agency. A list of service providers will also be included.
Beetle, an advocate for seniors, plans to help spread the word, too.
“A lot of people don’t even know this is going to happen,” he said. “They need to know.”
Michael Cabanatuan is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @ctuan