Valley Voices

Innovative approaches help families reduce dependence on food stamps

Peter E. Weber is founder and chair of the Fresno Bridge Academy.
Peter E. Weber is founder and chair of the Fresno Bridge Academy.

In 2015, the Fresno County Department of Social Services and the Fresno Bridge Academy were selected by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) as one of 10 national pilots to conduct a randomized control test to measure the effectiveness of innovative public-private programs to help individuals and families reduce their dependence on food stamps.

As Washington legislators currently debate re-authorization of the Nutrition Title of the Farm bill, I have been asked to comment on what we have learned. Although we are now in the third year of the test, provisions in the USDA grant prohibit me from discussing results until the program evaluator, Mathematica, has reported its findings to the Congress.

However, since we have been running our traditional Bridge Academy program (launched in 2010) alongside the pilot, and since we now operate traditional Bridge Academies in several other California counties, I can report findings and outcomes from that program.

First, a primer. The Food Stamp program, now known as SNAP (CalFresh in California), is managed by the Food and Nutrition Services AgencyDuring the great recession the number of SNAP beneficiaries almost doubled from 26 million in 2007 to 47 million in 2013. The number is now 41 million.

To qualify for benefits, income level must be below 130 percent of the poverty level (200percent for elderly or disabled). About two-thirds of SNAP recipients are children, elderly or disabled. The Bridge Academy is focused on the remaining one-third: able-bodied adults, about two-thirds of whom have children.

Our partnership with counties gives us access to information on who is receiving SNAP benefits in the communities we serve. We reach out and invite them to participate in our Bridge Academy program.

Almost 3,000 households are enrolled in our program: 75 percent of heads of household have no employment at enrollment; 24 percent have no high-school degree or GED; and 18 percent have prior criminal records. The overwhelming majority of our clients are not chronic SNAP beneficiaries, but access SNAP benefits when they are in low-wage jobs or between jobs.

More than 80 percent of our clients are placed in stable employment; 83 percent remain employed by their companies one year later; 30 percent achieve full self-reliance even before they graduate from the 18-month program.

Taxpayers get a $5.50 return for every taxpayer dollar expended on the program, mostly in the form of reduced outlays for public assistance and tax generation by workers who were previously tax consumers.

This is a voluntary program. Our clients are not obligated to enroll and they are not obligated to remain enrolled for the 18-month duration of the program, but 77 percent of those who enroll do just that.

There clearly is no shortage of people who wish to improve their circumstances. The problem is that most of them just don’t know how, or they haven’t developed the self-confidence to try, or they have daunting family issues that impede their efforts.

That understanding is at the heart of the Bridge Academy Model. We know it’s our clients who will have to do the hard work to achieve self-reliance. Our mission is to enable them. We don’t just enroll individuals, we enroll complete families.

We don’t just provide education, training and job placement assistance to the primary wage-earner in the household, we provide wrap-around services to all members of the family. The pay-off comes when they graduate from the program with solid footing on a path to self-reliance.

All this is made possible by our career and family navigators, who virtually adopt their families for the 18-month duration of the program. They act as mentors, coaches, facilitators and service integrators.

What makes us so cost-effective is that we do not believe in duplicating what already exists. In 2016, we referred our clients to 118 different organizations that had existing funding to serve our clients’ needs.

But, here’s the rub. Of the $70 billion nutrition services budget, only $439 million is allocated to employment and training programs like the Bridge Academy. Our goal should be to create a virtuous cycle –we invest to help people become self-reliant, which in turn reduces taxpayer outlays for public assistance.

As the Bridge Academy has demonstrated, this is good social policy with a huge return on taxpayer investment.

Peter E. Weber is founder and chair of the Fresno Bridge Academy. Connect with him at