How the 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 SNAP program nationally. California calls its SNAP program “CalFresh.” California also operates the California Food Assistance Program (CFAP) for immigrants not eligible for federal SNAP benefits. In California the designated state agency for administering the CalFresh (SNAP) program is the California Department of Social Services (CDSS). [MPP § 63-104.1.]

California has a county-administered system where local county welfare departments bear the responsibility for much of the CalFresh and CFAP programs, especially the certification of eligible households. [MPP § 63-104.2.] Wherever this Guide says “the CalFresh office,” or “the county,” it means the county welfare department that runs the CalFresh program in the local county.

Distribution of costs

In 2022, nationwide the SNAP program distributed almost $114 billion in benefits and served an average of over 41 million people a month. [FNS SNAP Data Tables.] In May, 2023, California had over 5.2 million program participants. [Id.] USDA pays for the full cost of the benefits, and half of the costs of running the program, such as rent for local CalFresh offices, case worker salaries and printing application forms. [7 C.F.R. §§ 277.1, and 277.4.] The State of California and some local governments pay the remaining costs of operating the CalFresh program.

Policy-making structure

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is authorized by the Food and Nutrition Act of 2008. It is a federal law passed, and occasionally changed, by Congress. Federal authority to operate the program is renewed at somewhat regular intervals. SNAP is essentially the same program previously known as the Food Stamp program. The Food and Nutrition Service has posted a Short History of SNAP, dating its origins back to the first food stamp program in 1939. More recently, SNAP 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 of this occurred in 1996. The food stamp program was reauthorized as part of the 1996 Farm Bill. However, significant program changes were also made as part of so-called “welfare reform” legislation, the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunities Reconciliation Act of 1996. In its current form, SNAP was last reauthorized in 2019 and must be reauthorized every five years.

In Congress, the Senate Agriculture Committee and the House Agriculture Committee have responsibility for the SNAP program.

To carry out the Food and Nutrition Act, USDA writes regulations and policy directives with directions to states about how to run the SNAP program. [See 7 C.F.R. § 272 et seq.] The directions often take the form of a “policy memo.” These policy memos follow the Food and Nutrition Act and USDA regulations. USDA maintains a list of these memos. USDA also highlights selected regulatory action in the SNAP program. At USDA it is the Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) that is in charge of SNAP. They are responsible for the regulatory and policy development discussed above. Federal agencies like the USDA are entitled to limited “deference” as to whether their implementing regulations comply with a federal act. The bottom line is that any such USDA federal regulation or policy directive must comply with or conform to the statutory requirements in the Food and Nutrition Act.

The FNS operates seven regions throughout the country, each with responsibility for several states. California is in the FNS Western Region, which has an office in San Francisco. At these offices there is a regional director, regional director for the SNAP program, and staff specifically assigned to 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 SNAP is a federal program, states have been given a number of policy making options, particularly in the 2002 Farm Bill. State options include:

  • Choose simplified reporting systems
  • Expand categorical eligibility
  • Establish transitional SNAP benefits
  • Provide benefits to drug felons
  • For more see the USDA published report on state use of these options annually. [See FNS Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program State Options Report (13th edition: August 2017).

In some states, the state administrative agencies have exercised these options without state legislation. However, the options exercised in California were largely done through the legislative process. Recent changes to CalFresh “auto” rules, “drug felon” rules, and reporting systems have occurred through actions by the state legislature. CalFresh legislation is available online.

Waivers and demonstration projects

States are also given flexibility in the form of “waivers.” [7 C.F.R. § 272.3(c)(4)(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 and Nutrition Act unless expressly permitted. [7 C.F.R. § 272.3(c)(1).] 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), 282.1-282.2; 7 U.S.C. § 2026; MPP § 63-107.1.] California is not currently operating any demonstration projects.

Organizational structure in California

The California Department of Social Service (CDSS) falls under the California 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.  CDSS also regularly publishes extensive, detailed data tables, data trends and reports about the operation of the CalFresh program.

California’s State plan

The CDSS is responsible for submitting a “state plan” to USDA for approval. [7 U.S.C. §§ 2020(d) and (e); 7 C.F.R. § 272.2.] Advocates have a right to see this state plan. The state plan cannot be contrary to federal requirements. Even if the USDA has approved a state plan, a court can still decide that something in that state plan is illegal.

California policies and procedures

The CDSS writes a manual for counties on how to run the program. California’s manual is referred to as the Manual of Policy and Procedures (MPP). The CDSS must follow any Administrative Procedure Act or other laws California has about receiving and reviewing public comments on its CalFresh manual. [7 C.F.R. § 272.3.] This manual must conform to the Food and Nutrition 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) and All County Information Notices (ACINs). These letters and notices are regularly posted online.

Policy role of counties in California

Counties have less discretion over CalFresh 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 CalFresh offices can receive federal money to tell people about the CalFresh program. [7 U.S.C. § 2020(e)(1); 7 C.F.R. § 272.5(c).]