Code for America Improves Access to Social Services during COVID-19

by Francesca Costa Senior program Manager, Code for America

At Code for America, we believe that public assistance programs like SNAP can be effective, easy to navigate, and can serve people with empathy and dignity. Code For America supports clients through the process of applying for SNAP, which is known as CalFresh in California. Five years ago, we launched in a few counties to improve how California delivers food assistance to people in need. Today, it has developed into a digital CalFresh assister serving the entire state. Previously, an online application for CalFresh required access to a desktop computer and took the better part of an hour to complete.ThroughGetCalFresh, the CalFresh application can be  submitted  from a smartphone in about ten minutes. 

On March 16, 2020, a shelter-in-place order was issued across the San Francisco Bay Area to stop the spread of coronavirus. Immediately, application volume skyrocketed. Our team quickly pivoted nearly all of our work: Engineers took night shifts to ensure that applications successfully made it to county offices to be processed. Program staff (like myself) dropped all of our existing projects to elevate the severity of the pandemic’s impact to our government partners. Our client success team went from fielding about 400 client messages per day to more than 1,200 daily. Our researchers combed through those messages to learn what product improvements we could make to help people through the application successfully. 

We started tracking job loss alongside overall application volume, and the numbers were staggering. Before the pandemic, about 15% of applicants said they had lost a job in the past month. At the end of March, over 60% of applicants told us they had just lost their jobs. Additionally, almost two-thirds of current applications are from people who have never sought food assistance before. Earlier this year, we’d get around 10,000 GetCalFresh applications in a typical week. During the second week of April, we received 58,533.  

What our staff saw  in client messages was painfully clear. What we saw in unemployment figures and media stories came to life in clients’ own words: millions of people in every corner of the country’s most populous state were not equipped to lose their incomes overnight. The need was urgent and systemic. Parents shared anguish about their sudden inability to provide for their children. Seniors and immunocompromised people conveyed the anxiety they felt not being able to leave the house to access support or resources. Thousands explained that they were applying for multiple government assistance programs, unsure that they would receive anything.

CalFresh county offices across the state made a heroic push to keep public services intact, despite having to shutter their public lobbies. When benefits came through, it was truly lifesaving. Since March 15th, over 422,000 CalFresh applications have been submitted through Federal and state waivers have made food benefits easier to access and maintain—and the stakes have never been higher. 

Today, it’s crystal clear that having public services that are easy to navigate is crucial; but that has always been true. This challenge proves that services rooted in empathy and human needs are the best tools we have to help people through a crisis of any size ⁠— whether it’s a public health emergency or one person going to bed hungry. 

Francesca Costa is a Senior Program Manager on Code for America’s GetCalFresh team. Prior to working at Code for America, Francesca managed a CalFresh (SNAP) outreach program with the San Francisco-Marin Food Bank.