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2. How the Food Stamp (CalFresh) Program is structured

Overall program structure and administration

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), more specifically the USDA Food and Nutrition Service is in charge of the program nationally. While most states still refer to the program as the “food stamp” program, “stamps” as such no longer exist.  Given that, the federal program was renamed the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).  California calls its SNAP program “CalFresh.”  (This guide uses both CalFresh and “food stamps” to discuss the program and the benefits.)  California also operates the California Food Assistance Program (CFAP) for immigrants not eligible for federal benefits. County welfare departments administer this program as well. [MPP § 63-104.2.]

In our state, the California Department of Social Services (CDSS) is in charge of implementing the federally funded Food Stamp Program within California. [MPP § 63-104.1] California has a county-administered system where local county welfare departments (CWD) bear the responsibility for much of the program, especially the certification of eligible households. [MPP § 63-104.2.]  Wherever this Guide says “the food stamp office,” it means the California county welfare department that runs the Food Stamp Program in the local county. For example, in Los Angeles County this would be the Department of Public Social Services or DPSS.

Distribution of costs

In 2013, the Food Stamp Program distributed over $133 billion in benefits and served an average of over 47 million people a month nationwide. [FNS Food Stamp Program Annual Summary.] In California in 2013, over 4 million people participated. [FNS Food Stamp Program Annual Persons Participating.] and the total value of the food stamps was approximately $7.5 billion. [Food Stamp Program Annual Benefits]. USDA pays for the full cost of the benefits, and half of the costs of running the program, such as rent for local food stamp offices, case worker salaries and printing application forms. [7 C.F.R. §§ 271.4, and 277.4] The State of California and some local governments pay the remaining costs of operating the Food Stamp Program.

Policy-making structure

The Food Stamp Act is a federal law passed, and occassionaly changed, by Congress. Federal authority to operate the program is renewed at somewhat regular intervals. In recent history, the Food Stamp Program has been reauthorized by federal farm bill legislation. However, significant federal law changes to the program have occurred outside of the reauthorization process. A good example was 1996. The program was reauthorized as part of the 1996 Farm Bill,while significant program changes were also made as part of welfare legislation, the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunities Reconciliation Act of 1996. The Food Stamp Program, last reauthorized in 2014, must be reauthorized every five years. For an updated list of legislative changes, see the complete legislative history of the Food Stamp Program.

In Congress, the Senate Agriculture and the House Agriculture Committees have historically had responsibility for the Food Stamp Program.

To carry out the Food Stamp Act, USDA writes rules (“regulations“) and provides states with direction in running the program. [See 7 C.F.R. § 271 et seq.] The direction often takes the form of a “policy memo.” These policy memos follow the Food Stamp Act and USDA regulations. USDA maintains a list of these memos. USDA also highlights selected regulatory action in the Food Stamp Program.

At USDA it is the Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) that is in charge of food stamps. They are responsible for the regulatory and policy development discussed above. Federal agencies like the USDA are entitled to only limited “deference” as to whether their implementing regulations comply with a federal act (in this instance, USDA must comply with the Food Stamp Act).

FNS operates seven regions throughout the country, each with responsibility for several states.

California is in the Food and Nutrition Service’s Western Region, which has an office in San Francisco. At these offices there is a regional director, regional director for the Food Stamp Program, and staff specifically for the “California desk.” The regional office generally does not set policy, but does play a role in the submission of state waivers and provides oversight.

State program options

While the Food Stamp Program is a federal program, states have been given a number of policy making options, particularly in the 2002 Farm Bill. States have been given the options to choose simplified reporting systems, expand categorical eligibility, establish transitional food stamps, provide benefits to drug felons, etc. USDA publishes a report on state use of these options annually. [Food Stamp Program State Options Report]

In some states, the state administrative agencies have exercised these options without state legislation. However, the options that have been exercised in California were largely done through the legislative process. Recent changes to food stamp “auto” rules, “drug felon” rules, and reporting systems have occurred through actions by the state legislature. California food stamp legislation is available online. Statutory changes made to California’s Welfare & Institutions Code with regard to the Food Stamp Program can largely be found in sections 18900 through 18935 of the Welfare & Institutions Code.

Waivers and demonstration projects

States are also given flexibility in the form of “waivers.” [7 C.F.R. § 272.2(a)(2).] Waivers let states do things a little differently. USDA can grant waivers of certain regulations to states. However, USDA cannot grant waivers from statutory requirements in the Food Stamp Act, unless expressly permitted. [7 C.F.R. § 272.3(c)(2)(ii).] State waivers cannot waive away client rights. [7 C.F.R. § 272.3(c)(2)(ii).] Everyone has the right to see copies of any waivers USDA has given your state. USDA maintains a database of state waivers and requests.

States are also permitted to test a number of changes all at once. This is called a demonstration project. [7 C.F.R. §§ 271.3(c), 282.1-282.19; 7 U.S.C. § 2026, ; MPP § 63-104.1.] California is not currently operating any demonstration projects.

Organizational structure in California

The Department of Social Services (CDSS) in California falls under the Health and Human Services Agency. While the latter agency plays a policy oversight function, it is the former Department that has the responsibility for developing and updating the Manual of Policy and Procedures (MPP), writing program regulations, and communicating to counties via program letters and notices.

In California the Food Stamp Program is under the Welfare-to-Work Division of the Department of Social Services. There is a specific food stamp policy bureau in the division. This is where many policies are developed.

California’s state plan

The California Department of Social Services (CDSS) is responsible for submitting a “state plan” to USDA for approval. [7 U.S.C. § 2020(d), (e); 7 C.F.R. § 272.2(a)(2).] Advocates have a right to see this state plan. The state plan cannot be contrary to federal requirements. The fact that USDA has approved a state plan does not mean that a court cannot decide that something in that state plan is illegal.

California policies and procedures

The California Department of Social Services (CDSS) writes a manual for counties on how to run the program. California’s manual is referred to as the Manual of Policies & Procedures (MPP). The CDSS must follow any Administrative Procedure Act or other laws California has about receiving and reviewing public comments on its food stamp manual. [7 C.F.R. § 272.3] This manual must conform to the Food Stamp Act and its implementing federal regulations. State regulations cannot omit important parts of federal regulations.

In addition to this manual, CDSS often communicates policy direction to counties through periodic All County Letters (ACLs), All County Information Notices (ACINs) and business letters. These letters and notices are regularly posted online. This Guide also includes a list ACLs and ACINs about the CalFresh program.

Policy role of counties in California

Counties have less discretion over food stamp policies, but local policies can greatly influence customer service in the program. Counties set office hours and locations and are largely responsible for outreach and access to the program. Local Food stamp offices can receive federal money to tell people about the Food Stamp Program. [7 U.S.C. § 2020(e)(1); 7 C.F.R. § 272.5(c).]

For more information about the respective roles of the state and the counties in the California Food Stamp Program, see the section on county and state operational responsibilities.