A look back on the tenth anniversary of the launch

CalFresh: The Origin Story

Movie fans might know that Arnold Schwarzenegger gave birth in the movie Junior.  But did you know that he also gave birth to CalFresh, California's Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)?


After the Food Stamp Program moved to electronic benefit delivery (EBT), Congress acted to rename it the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).  States had the option to call the program SNAP, food stamps, or something else.  Nourish California (then known as California Food Policy Advocates) led the effort to explore how this renaming opportunity might help improve the perception of the program among low-income residents and increase program participation in what was then the last-ranked program in the country.

At the time, we were championing legislation to ensure that low-income Californians didn't have to exhaust their assets—a reliable car, or modest savings—before getting help with food.  We amended that successful bill to include the expectation that the state rename the program to reflect that "food stamps are no longer delivered by stamps" and to consider drawing connections to California agriculture.  The fact this renaming effort came on the heels of policy improvements like removing the "car rule," and now that "asset" change was very important to us.  We didn't want to slap a new name on the old program.

What we heard

Along with community partners and a research firm, we set out to listen to low-income Californians in the search for a new name.  From the start, it was clear that the name SNAP wasn't going to work in California (one food stamp participant told us that applying for the program wasn't a snap).  What we heard from communities that they wanted something modern to reflect the changes to the program like the EBT card (which was liked as it was easy to use and helped to reduce stigma). "Fresh" came up repeatedly in the process both in the words used (initially in Spanish - "fresca") and in the vibrant images of fresh fruits and vegetables shared with us.  But it wasn't that easy to arrive upon a new name and logo.

The options

We really wanted this process to be driven by Californians eligible for food aid in order to increase the likelihood that new brand could improve the perception of the program.  A talented team put what was heard and learned into design options.

Through a statewide survey and in focus groups these options were explored:


Don't see the name CalFresh or the logo?  It wasn't there.  After eliminating some options based on the feedback, the design team went back to work.  In the options above, the use of "Cal" was familiar to people and gave the impression it was a government program like CalWorks, Medi-Cal, etc.  And the word fresh kept coming back.  So it came down to two options:


We really could be celebrating the anniversary of the Healthy Plate Plan.  It actually received the most votes in one of the surveys.  But CalFresh was the name respondents felt was the easiest to say out loud.  It also captured the vision of a name that was fresh, modern, and had a connection to agriculture in California.

So, what about Arnold?

While First Lady Maria Shriver was leading much of this effort, it was Governor Schwarzenegger who signed the renaming bill into law and participated in the launch.


Though Governor Schwarzenegger got off to a bad start by trying the repeal the "Save Money, Cut Hunger Act" and was horrible during his tenure on welfare and other human service policies, he did take a number of positive actions on food.  So when it came time to launch the name at First Lady Shriver's Modern House Call, the Governor stepped into the spotlight in 2010 to get his CalFresh T-shirt and kickoff the CalFresh brand.

The Tenth Anniversary

At this ten-year mark, CalFresh has proven to be a critical support for so many households during the pandemic.  Participation shot up in the Spring.  And recognizing that increased CalFresh benefits can help individuals and our economy, we have repeated calls to increase benefits.

As mentioned above, it was important for us to ensure the new CalFresh brand was tied to policy improvements.  Over the last decade we led a number of campaigns to increase CalFresh access. Last month, during a state legislative hearing on the Covid crisis, the Legislative  Analyst reported that the changes have made a huge difference:

“Since 2009, the state has rebranded the program, eliminated asset requirements, promoted online and telephone applications, and reduced the amount of paperwork necessary to remain enrolled in CalFresh. These changes have increased the number of eligible CalFresh recipients who choose to participate in the program by more than 500,000 per year


While there is certainly much, much more work to be done, advocates, administrators, and policymakers should feel some sense of pride over what has been accomplished over the last ten years.  We hope you can join us in continuing to make the program "fresh" and "modern" as low-income Californians urged us to do a decade ago.

In gratitude

This ten-year mark presents another opportunity to acknowledge those who were so critical to the launch of CalFresh beyond those mentioned or linked above.  Senator Jim Beall and his staff, Frances Chacon, championed the legislation.  Health and Human Services Secretary Kim Belshe, Social Services Director John Wagner, and his staff (notably Detta Hunt and Chris Webb-Curtis) turned the legislative vision into reality (see photo).  Funders like The California Endowment and Kaiser Permanente ensured that precious recession-era state resources weren't spent on the research, development, and launch of the name.  And community partners like Bill York at 211 ensured that the public launch was a success.



And finally, two staff from our team at the time, Evonne Silva and Alexis Fernández, worked hard to ensure that the new brand responded to what was heard and learned from low-income Californians. In a fitting epilogue, Alexis now leads the CalFresh program for the state of California.

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