When you have a regular paycheck, a roof over your head, your health, and a fully stocked refrigerator, it’s easy to focus on other activities of daily living.

But when you lack one or all of these things, your focus is on surviving.

I know all this from first-hand experience. As a child, I helped my mom, who doesn’t speak English, apply for public assistance in times of great family need. I had to research and complete, on behalf of my parents, food, health, and unemployment forms and job applications, translating them from English to Spanish and vice versa. We used buses to go from one agency to the next, and sometimes going back and forth to the same organization. There was no one to point us the right way or direct us around pitfalls, as we worked toward stabilizing our day-to-day lives, and eventual self-sufficiency and economic independence.

It’s extremely difficult to be impoverished. It’s a challenge to navigate social services, especially when you’re living paycheck to paycheck and having to negotiate between food and rent.  Fortunately, there are many nonprofits and government agencies offering assistance for housing, health, food, education, and employment, but they often operate independently of one another, making it time-consuming, complicated, and repetitive to figure out the programs your family qualifies for and how to apply for them.

According to Feeding America, 49 million Americans live in food insecure households, meaning they lack an adequate source of nutritious food. Many of them seek help from food banks and other programs. Photo: Courtesy Second Harvest Food Bank
According to Feeding America, 49 million Americans live in food insecure households, without an adequate source of nutritious food. Many seek help from food banks and other programs. Photo: Courtesy Second Harvest Food Bank.

The search for public assistance is further compounded by government budget cuts to staff, which pushes social workers to dangerous caseload levels as agencies move to online enrollment and support models. This forces the most vulnerable, and often unconnected, to the Internet to fend for themselves. In fact, the Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey has found as many as 100 million Americans, many of whom are elderly, poor, and undereducated, have no way of accessing the Internet from home. And, even for those who are able to use the Internet, a simple mistake on an application can delay critical social services.

I’m fortunate to work for a company that sees the value in helping communities thrive, a company that incorporates the experiences of its employees into its social investments, by providing the kind of financial assistance and volunteer resources that help people in time of need.  One of the ways Cisco does this is through Community Impact Cash Grants. These grants support unmet needs of the underserved in two key areas: education, and critical human needs (prevention, emergency services and self-sufficiency). Cisco Community Impact Cash Grants are intended to help organizations maximize their impact in the local community.

I’m also in a position–as a senior government and community relations manager–to have some influence over where Cisco directs some of these cash grants, and am particularly pleased when they go to help people solve food and housing challenges. I believe that if people in need didn’t have to spend so much time navigating the system for these basic needs, they would have more time and energy to improve their life circumstance, through education or job training.

A mother and son pick up food from the Second Harvest Food Bank
A mother and son pick up healthy provisions at a Second Harvest Food Bank distribution. Photo: Courtesy Second Harvest Food Bank.

Three years ago I starting working with Second Harvest Food Bank of Santa Clara and San Mateo Counties to help clients better utilize California’s food stamp program, CalFresh. Second Harvest works with more than 300 different community centers and distribution agencies—such as shelters, pantries, soup kitchens, senior meal sites, and residential programs—to get food to people in most need in these two counties. In one year alone, they distributed nearly 52 million pounds of nutritious food to low-income people, much of it fresh produce. Second Harvest also plays a leading role in promoting federal nutrition programs and educating families on how to make healthier food choices, something Cisco supports.

CalFresh is one of the most readily available yet under-utilized avenues through which low-income families, seniors, and individuals can receive food. With the help of Cisco’s Community Impact Cash Grants of $250,000 since 2011, Second Harvest has been able to streamline the application process so that these benefits will be distributed faster to those in need, many of whom are unaware that they are even eligible to receive assistance.

How have they done this? Second Harvest trains the staff of its food distribution partners to screen people who come through their doors to see if they are eligible for assistance through CalFresh. If they are, they help with the application process right there, on the spot. How much time and frustration can this eliminate for those who are in such need? A lot.

In 2014, Second Harvest plans to screen 24,000 people. As many as 8000 will have an application submitted, with about half approved for food stamps as a result. This equates to $14 million in federal food assistance and $25 million in additional economic activity to Santa Clara and San Mateo counties. That is truly impact multiplied, because, for every dollar spent in food assistance, it translates to a return of $1.79 to the local economy.

And, once enrolled in CalFresh, these individuals and families will be automatically qualified for Medi-Cal, thanks to recent changes in the Medi-Cal program, so they can get the health care they need, too.

Given our success with Second Harvest, we’re looking at other ways of multiplying our impact. One area ripe for support is affordable housing. We recently invested more than $1.5 million in cash and technology to three leading emergency, temporary and affordable housing nonprofits, including $540,000 to the Housing Trust of Silicon Valley. These funds will help the Housing Trust leverage additional financing from both private and public sources to create 300 to 500 units of affordable rental housing. The San Jose Business Journal recently recognized Cisco as one of the few corporations providing support to Silicon Valley’s affordable housing crisis.

It’s challenging—and sometimes embarrassing—enough to be out of work, homeless, hungry, sick, and then lost in a confusing system. It’s reassuring to know so many families won’t have to go through what my family did, and can instead use their time and energy on programs that will yield better future outcomes, with dignity.


Ricardo Benavidez

Senior Community Relations Manager