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Napa Valley residents received more than $8 million from the federal government to spend on groceries last year, but one in five households eligible for those benefits aren’t signed up to get them, officials say.

In 2017, nearly 2 million California households were enrolled in CalFresh, the state program that distributes federal food benefits, often called food stamps. State estimates indicate that more than 1.5 million people eligible for food benefits didn’t sign up to get them.

That gap exists partly because of stigma associated with food stamps, lack of understanding about the program and frustration with an application and renewal process that some find arduous, Lynn Perez, deputy director of the county’s Self Sufficiency Services Division, said in an email.

She added that some people falsely believe that their immigration status could be impacted by receiving CalFresh benefits, or they may have to repay the government for its assistance.

“We are trying everything we can here to reach vulnerable populations as much as we can,” Perez said in a phone interview. “We can’t just be in the office waiting for them to come.”

Napa County has fared better than the state overall when it comes to enrolling eligible residents in CalFresh.

Seventy-two percent of CalFresh-eligible households were receiving benefits in 2017, the most recent year for which state data is available. Nearly 78 percent of CalFresh-eligible households in Napa Valley were enrolled in the program that same year.

California has historically seen low CalFresh participation rates, but the state has put more resources toward public outreach in the past few years, Perez wrote.

She noted that Napa County has been faster than the rest of the state in closing the gap between CalFresh-eligible people and CalFresh recipients. California closed its gap between CalFresh-eligible and CalFresh-enrolled by .4 percentage points between 2016 and 2017, while the county closed its gap by eight percentage points during that same time period.

It helps that benefits are now distributed on a card that can be swiped at the grocery store, Perez said. Gone are the days of counting out food stamps at the grocery store.

Still, the number of eligible households in the county dropped by 15 percent over the past year, while the number of eligible households statewide dropped by 10 percent. Perez cited a better economy and lower unemployment rates locally as responsible.

How does it work?

The state determines CalFresh eligibility based on a person’s income, before taxes or other deductions. Residents without a Social Security number are not eligible.

A single person’s total monthly income could not exceed $2,024, according to the state’s current guidelines. Add $720 for each additional person in the household.

CalFresh recipients can sign up for benefits at c4yourself.com, or at the county’s Self Sufficiency Services offices in Napa and American Canyon. Some community groups, such as OLE Health or the South Napa Shelter, can also help people apply.

CalFresh households receive money each month on their electronic benefit transfer, or EBT, card that can be swiped at the grocery store like a credit card. Unused money rolls over each month and year.

“You may be eligible, you may not be,” Perez said. “It doesn’t hurt to apply.”

CalFresh in the farmers market

CalFresh recipients can use their benefits at the Napa Farmers Market. The market participates in Market Match, a program that allows CalFresh recipients to double their food stamp dollars, thanks to donations and grant funding.

The market matched more than $18,000 for about 200 CalFresh recipients last year, said David Layland, who chairs the market’s board of directors. That’s up from the $11,000 that Napa Farmers Market matched in 2017.

Shoppers use their EBT cards to cash in for wooden tokens worth $1 each at the information booth, said Cara Mae Wooledge, market manager. Those coins can be used to purchase produce, bread, meat, cheese or even seeds that produce food, she said.

More CalFresh shoppers have started coming to the market, but Wooledge said the Napa Farmers Market hasn’t historically done much to promote the program. In the past couple of years, it’s tried to build partnerships and spread the word about its CalFresh programs.

“That’s really breaking down barriers in terms of the perception that our market is too expensive for low-income customers,” Wooledge said.

And the market is about more than shopping — it’s a place where the community gathers, she said.

Wooledge, who has a background in public health, suggested that anyone who is curious about food benefits talk to someone they trust at a family resource center or nonprofit. They can clear up any myths and help them apply for CalFresh.

“The biggest strength that we have in Napa County is our spirit of partnership and community,” she said.

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Public Safety Reporter

Courtney Teague is the Napa Valley Register public safety reporter. She can be reached at 707-256-2221. You can follow her reporting on Twitter and Facebook, or send her anonymous tip at: tinyurl.com/anonymous-tipbox-courtney.