Using tech to aid disaster relief response

Caitlin Docker
Jan 24, 2018 · 7 min read

Connecting residents to food assistance during the Northern California fires.

The catastrophic fires in Northern California put residents across seven counties in sudden need of immediate food assistance. On the first day of the disaster period, the GetCalFresh team launched a digital outreach strategy to announce the availability of Disaster CalFresh and provide instructions for residents on how to apply for benefits. It’s the first time the team mobilized in response to a disaster, and here are the results of our efforts:

  • Launched an easy-to-understand and actionable online information page that resulted in 6,932 visits. Of those, 7.5% (or 508 people) were “activated”: they moved forward to find location information on where to apply for D-CalFresh.
  • Increased regular CalFresh applications in Sonoma County by 408% (from 68 applications in the week prior to the fire to 346 in the week following the fire) by increasing digital outreach efforts on channels like Google AdWords and Facebook.
  • Provided guidance to 70 residents (via live-chat on the info page) who were displaced from the disaster and seeking an online alternative to applying for relief in-person.
  • Provided information on the option of Disaster CalFresh to all clients applying through GCF for regular CalFresh benefits in affected counties.

Here’s a summary of GetCalFresh’s digital outreach strategy and lessons learned when conducting outreach to potentially eligible households during a disaster.

Launched a Central D-CalFresh Information Page

The team reviewed national online search trends and saw significant spikes in searches for food assistance after natural disasters like Hurricanes Irma and Harvey. Given the program design of Disaster CalFresh — specifically, the requirement of an in-person interview — the team determined that the most effective digital support for D-CF outreach would be:

  1. Reaching more people who may be eligible for disaster benefits
  2. Providing clear and actionable information to get people to the best next step (applying in person, where they could do the interview, and receive benefits the same day)

GetCalFresh then evaluated options for reaching residents across all counties when they were searching for disaster food resources. We launched a general D-CalFresh information page to direct affected residents on how they could apply.

Since D-CalFresh rules were different than regular CalFresh, it was important to share information in plain simple language. The content focused on answering key questions:

  • What is it? What’s the benefit amount?
  • When is the application deadline?
  • How do you apply? Where are the county offices?

“Folks affected by the disaster were already navigating so much — directing them to GetCalFresh’s D-CalFresh page meant that there would be one less thing to worry about. I knew that anyone visiting that page would find eligibility criteria that was easy to understand, verified location and contact information for local county offices, and a preview of what to expect next.” — Francesca Costa, SF Marin FB

Digital Outreach to Affected Communities

To increase awareness of D-CalFresh benefits, GetCalFresh launched a geo-targeted digital campaign using channels like Facebook, Google, and Bing to reach residents. Here’s a sample of the ads that drove residents to the new D-CalFresh information page:

Facebook advertising

Each day the GetCalFresh team reviewed which digital channels were more efficient at reaching affected residents and found that Facebook had the highest impact. Residents turned to the platform to keep informed, locate loved ones, notify authorities, and find support services.

Live Chat Support

A live chat pop-up was added to the D-CalFresh information page to answer questions specific to program benefits, eligibility requirements, and instructions on how to apply.

Live chat support available on

GetCalFresh worked with more than 70 people asking how to apply for D-CalFresh benefits online. The majority were displaced and were not able to apply in-person. They were seeking an online alternative to submit their application and conduct their interview over the phone.

“I would like to apply for Disaster CalFresh, what do I do?”

“Can I fill out a disaster assistance form for CalFresh online? I had to move because my trailer burned up. What can I do?”

The live chat support allowed GetCalFresh to learn quickly about D-CalFresh users’ needs and relay to community-based organizations providing on-the-ground support. We wanted to ensure that the D-CalFresh info page answered the most common questions residents had and provided actionable instructions to get people to apply in-person.

Clear instructions to regular CalFresh applicants in disaster areas

At the time of the fires, GetCalFresh was providing assistance with regular CalFresh applications in only one of the seven counties affected.

Working with our partners at CDSS, we identified that increasing outreach to Sonoma County for regular CalFresh would be a helpful step — even prior to the D-CF 7-day window opening — as many residents may have had job and other income loss in the immediate future as a result of the fires, and may be newly eligible for regular CalFresh.

As local, on-the-ground outreach channels were short-staffed given the overall emergency response, GCF significantly increased online outreach efforts and saw application volume increase more than 400%. Roughly 68 applications were submitted in the week prior to the fire and 346 were submitted in the week following the fire. More than 60% of these applications were for households of two or more people, and 30% indicated that they did not have stable housing.

Volume of applications submitted in Sonoma County

GetCalFresh also added information about D-CalFresh for Sonoma County applications. The goal was to clarify what program someone was applying for and share instructions in English or Spanish for how applicants could also apply for D-CalFresh.

Lessons and Considerations for Future Disaster Response

The Northern California fires were the first time the GetCalFresh team mobilized to to increase awareness about D-CalFresh. Here’s an overview lessons and considerations when conducting outreach to potentially eligible households during a disaster.

  1. The value of clear language: While Disaster CalFresh is complex from a program perspective, the goal of outreach should be to give information that activates those eligible and in need to request the benefit. Simplifying the program’s complexity and the many details to clear, actionable information can make outreach more effective.
  2. Digital outreach is an effective channel for reaching those in need: Channels like Google AdWords, Bing, and Facebook can reach people in areas affected by disasters and are worth exploring as regular outreach channels when a disaster occurs and aid becomes available. These channels may become more valuable as residents may temporarily relocate to an area outside of the disaster zone. This form of outreach can also be cost effective.
  3. Digital outreach can complement on-the-ground efforts: Connecting with those in disaster-affected areas through online channels like Facebook and Google can complement on-the-ground efforts, both by reaching different people online, as well as by providing an accessible online resource for information that on-the-ground and non-digital outreach efforts can refer to (flyers, radio, news articles).
  4. Ongoing partnerships create resilience and collaboration when a disaster does hit: In Sonoma County, GetCalFresh was already working with the county and CBOs and so we were able to assist residents in that county and respond to the county’s needs quickly. While we offered to start supporting other impacted counties, trying to build that relationship when everyone was in emergency mode was not nearly as effective.
  5. Being able to quickly modify websites is critical: Within hours of participating in CDSS planning calls or receiving direction, GetCalFresh was able to route Sonoma and Napa applicant calls to the Sacramento phone lines; add disaster information GetCalFresh website; and provide the most accurate information to frequently asked questions. As the situation evolved and more information became available, clients were always presented with the most accurate information.
  6. Moving traffic from offices and CBOs to online can really help organizational bandwidth: We heard from CBOs that because we were able to handle the increase in regular CalFresh applications in Sonoma County, they were able to use their valuable in person bandwidth for those who truly had no other option and focus on D-CalFresh outreach efforts.

About GetCalFresh

GetCalFresh is service run by the non-profit organization Code for America and supported by a California Department of Social Services CalFresh Branch Outreach Contract designed to help people get CalFresh anytime, from any device. We help people apply for CalFresh and then support them through the application and eligibility process via live chat, text message, and e-mail, and by making it easier to schedule an interview and submit verification documents. We work with our clients and county partners to identify barriers clients may face and work together to solve them. Questions? Email

Code for America Blog

Writing and thinking about government that works for…

Caitlin Docker

Written by

Cait focuses on improving the delivery of government services like CalFresh and building household resilience to economic shocks.

Code for America Blog

Writing and thinking about government that works for people, by people, in the 21st century.

Caitlin Docker

Written by

Cait focuses on improving the delivery of government services like CalFresh and building household resilience to economic shocks.

Code for America Blog

Writing and thinking about government that works for people, by people, in the 21st century.

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store