A $900,000 federal grant has been awarded to the San Diego County, Calif., Health and Human Services Agency to upgrade technology that will help improve online processing times to CalFresh — the state’s food stamp program.

The funding is part of a U.S. Department of Agriculture effort to support food assistance programs, according to the agency.

Currently application documents can be submitted in paper form, online or by fax, said Dale Fleming, the county agency’s director of strategic planning and operational support. But no matter what form the document is in when it comes to the agency, it still has had to be photocopied into a document imaging system.

The new system will skip a step by implementing all-in-one photocopiers that have built-in document imaging capabilities that can send the copied documents directly into the county’s database and electronic tracking system. 

Through a Web portal, CalFresh applicants and community partners, such as the San Diego Hunger Coalition and San Diego Food Bank that work with applicants, will be able to check the status of their applications and cases online, Fleming said.

“This grant will enable us to process CalFresh applications in a more streamlined way,” said County Board of Supervisors Chairman Bill Horn in a statement. “The proposed technology upgrades will help the county process online applications quicker and more accurately, therefore saving the county and taxpayers money.”

The technology hasn’t been implemented yet and a vendor for the software hasn’t been chosen, but the Health and Human Services Agency will be working with the county’s application development staff and Hewlett-Packard, the county’s enterprise IT partner, to find the right software and technology for the agency’s needs.

By December, the agency would like to complete efforts on its master plan to create this new integrated electronic “passway” and imaging system.

During 2012, the agency plans to develop and implement the electronic passway and by 2013, it hopes to integrate the system with a customer relationship management tool that will feed into the passway. The customer management tool will assist with tracking individual workflows, and with use of the Web portal, users will be able to see into that workflow, Fleming said.

“The end result — we’re hopeful — will be something that is similar to a UPS system where clients and folks can actually track the status of their case, just like you track a FedEx shipment online,” Fleming said.

County officials believe that automating and streamlining these processes will eliminate staff time originally spent manually processing the documents, and staff can instead spend more time with clients.

According to the Health and Human Services Agency, the county receives more than 11,000 documents on a daily basis that are related to CalFresh applications. Since April 2009, the number of CalFresh applicants has nearly doubled in San Diego County, and in August, the county received more than 14,000 new applications. Overall, nearly 237,000 recipients are in the program.

Fleming said the more recent surge of applicants stems from not only the results of the poor economic climate, but also because the agency has done additional outreach to the public to apply for the CalFresh Program.

Although the agency mission tends to cater more often to a lower-income demographic — that may not be as likely to go online — county officials are ready to invest in this online service.

Since the cost of Internet has continued to decrease and because Internet is more available in public places, applicants can more easily access CalFresh applications online, Fleming said. Also, the sour economy has put different people in the benefits program.

“We’re seeing a new population now that is fresh from the work force — that has assets. They have things, and they may very well have Internet access,” Fleming said. “But the other thing we’re seeing is that the Internet is much more accessible than it was 10 years ago, five years ago, even three years ago.”

Sarah Rich, Staff Writer Sarah Rich  |  Staff Writer

In 2008, Sarah Rich graduated from California State University, Chico, where she majored in news-editorial journalism and minored in sociology. Since 2010, Sarah has written for Government Technology magazine and covers a spectrum of public-sector IT topics, including cloud computing, transparency, broadband, and other innovative projects and trends. She currently lives in Sacramento, Calif.