Accessing CalFresh through mRelief

JESSE STESHENKO / AGGIE

UC Davis students can address food insecurity with mobile, virtual aid

CalFresh is a form of government aid that provides funds for groceries. Although many college-aged students are eligible for it, few access the resources available. Why is this? There are numerous possible explanations, the first being the ignorance surrounding the program itself. What is CalFresh, anyway?

“I see CalFresh as a part of the overall support system that we all tap into sometimes in order to move forward in life,” said Rose Afriyie, the executive director of mRelief. “These are resources that have been set aside for you that we in a democracy have voted on that we believe should exist for people that fall under a certain income. That there should be no shame in this.”

Afriyie directs and developed the platform, mRelief, which helps to connect individuals to social services virtually. mRelief is a government-supported program on the internet and through text messaging. Its goal is to make sure that those in need of social services, like food stamps, can easily discover their eligibility and sign up. In partnership with Yolo County Department of Health, mRelief can now determine your eligibility through 10 questions answered over text.

The sign-up process is another potential barrier for food-insecure students. In the past, it has been difficult to know whether or not one is eligible for the resources. Now, it can be determined in a 10-question survey available online or via text.

I do think it’s really helpful for students to find out, in 10 questions or less, whether or not they qualify,” Afriyie said. “Sometimes when you’re stressed out […] we want to just give back their time and their energy and their efforts. Use that mental muscle for calculus, but maybe not for finding out whether you qualify for CalFresh.”

Ease of accessibility is being addressed by on-campus forces, too. Aggie Compass, a basic needs hub in the MU that will direct students toward available resources regarding food security and mental health, will arrive at UC Davis at the beginning of Spring Quarter.

Third-year economics and psychology double major and former ASUCD Senator Daniel Nagey is working to create Aggie Compass, as well as the Aggie Food Connections Coalition, which has hosted a CalFresh Clicks events in which representatives are available to help students sign up.

“One of the biggest things about CalFresh is […] a lot of people don’t know about it,” Nagey said. “It’s not very heavily advertised, I think the statistic I was told, which might be out of date, that [of] about 8 percent of students at UC Davis who qualify for CalFresh, only about 8 percent of them are using the CalFresh resource. It seems to me that students are kind of unaware. We just want to get the word out.”

Former ASUCD senator and current ASUCD presidential candidate Michael Gofman similarly focuses on food security, especially broadening the impact of The Pantry on students’ lives and on their plates.

“Primarily, as a senator back in Spring Quarter, and as a presidential candidate today, I fight to increase The Pantry’s budget and resources,” Gofman said. “I successfully lobbied for more money allocated to The Pantry during the last budget hearings, and hope to do so again next quarter.”

In addition to ignorance of the program itself and difficulties with signing up and identifying qualifiers, Afriyie said that there tends to be a stigma surrounding aid.

We have to also honor […] stigma and sometimes shame about government aid,” Afriyie said. “That should not be the case, because we all get support from the government at some point in time.”

Fourth-year environmental science and management major Stephanie Lew admitted that she didn’t always feel confident in using CalFresh. It was desperation and stress around food security that pushed her toward it, and she now knows that it was the right choice.

“When I became aware that I was actually eligible for it and I was desperate, I was like,  ‘I’m going to apply’,” Lew said. “At first I was a little bit embarrassed about it but now […] I don’t mind admitting to people, ‘Hey I rely on CalFresh for groceries.’”

Lew’s experience is a testament to the fact that access to healthy groceries is something students are entitled to without added stress.

“I really care about my personal health,” Lew said. “That’s where my money should be going.”

This belief is often dwarfed by the concern students have that they are not desperate enough to qualify. Afriyie, Lew and Nagey each stressed the fact that if one meets the eligibility requirements, they are entitled to the service and are not keeping it from others in more need.

“I think that people are under the impression that CalFresh is for people that are dirt poor,” Lew said. “You just have this image of someone who needs social services. You would never think that someone like me would need CalFresh. We have this idea in our heads that it’s for very, very poor people that don’t have any money at all, when it’s really not.”

Nagey encourages students not to feel that they are taking from others.

I think a lot of students really think that there must be students worse off but I think that it’s important to remember with government programs like this […] you’re not taking from another person if you apply,” Nagey said. “That’s not really how the program works. It’s a need-based program so there will be money if there’s need.”

The online platform supplemented by mobile access for text message reminders and interviews provided by mRelief thus provides students with a quick way to verify eligibility, apply and receive the help they deserve.

In fact, the sign-up takes eight minutes or less and those eligible should be approved within a month of applying. This aid comes in the form of an Electronic Benefit Transfer card to be used at grocery stores. The uses of the funds don’t need to be reported back or recorded.

If mRelief can address all aforementioned concerns, the one that glaringly remains is the absence of community between CalFresh users.

It’s really about creating a community of support,” Afriyie said. “We’ve got technology, we’ve got people who know about the system, but you know what, sometimes it’s really great to tap into people in your community […] especially at a time when 48 percent of students are food insecure.”

To create community, Afriyie called for student ambassadors to join mRelief and spread the word.

“We are looking for campus ambassadors who are either on CalFresh right now or know more about the process and want to be able to help their fellow students out,” Afriyie said.

Those interested can text 74544 in order to begin the process.

 

Written by: Stella Sappington — features@theaggie.org

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