CalFresh Is Totally Better Than Food Stamps: Rebranding Government Programs



Recently I was invited to speak at the CalFresh Forum in Sacramento, an event put on by the California Food Policy Advocates and the California Department of Social Services. I was part of a workshop focusing on the new brand: the overall goals and opportunities of branding practice, key messaging around the new CalFresh brand and opportunities to integrate the new brand into CalFresh outreach. My co-panelists were Maria Leech with the Network for Healthy California and David Ginsburg with UC Food Stamp Nutrition Education Program. I really enjoyed discussing branding in general and how the CalFresh brand can really make a difference in California.

What is CalFresh, you might ask? Shame on you for not paying attention. It’s the new name for California’s Food Stamp program, launched just this past October. It parallels the renaming of the federal Food Stamp program to SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program). Both programs have been renamed in an effort to reduce the stigma associated with the label “food stamps” and to emphasize the positive associations of using the program – access to fresh, nutritious food. Another obvious reason is that they aren’t stamps anymore – and “stamps” connotes rationing, scarcity, and the feeling of a mandatory and not too pleasant government control. In the case of CalFresh, a lot of effort went into making sure that the name appealed to the target audience (people who use the Food Stamp program) and that the name was in line with other California state programs like CalPERS, CalTrain, CalJOBS, etc.

Because of the success of the CalFresh brand, there was some talk at the Forum about the possibility of renaming other state programs, like welfare (which, in California, isn’t just one program, but a bunch of assistance offerings grouped under the general heading of Social Services). The word “welfare” has a ton of negative associations, the most famous of which is the myth of the welfare queen, used to great advantage by Ronald Reagan in his 1976 presidential campaign. (It’s a trifecta of stereotypes- racist, classist, and misogynist!) In the US, the word “welfare” is now shorthand used by conservatives to mean “money for poor lazy people”, something to be pared to the bone, if not eliminated entirely. Most of the rest of the civilized world sees it as something  guaranteeing a minimal level of well-being and social support for all citizens.

Some of the welfare programs in California already have pretty good names, like CalWORKs, Kin-GAP, Cal-Learn, and of course Medi-Cal. But maybe there’s room for a umbrella name which covers all of them, like CalCare (if it wasn’t already in use as CalCareNet for the long-term care services offered in the state). Would it take away some of the stigma? Maybe. If it did rehabilitate the concept, would it last? Again, it’s a big maybe. But I think it’s worth trying. Rebranding, when it works, can be a powerful tool to change minds and hearts.

And while we’re at it, why not rename some other government programs with bad reputations? If it were up to me, I’d rename the DMV in a heartbeat. “DMV” has always been to close to “DMZ” for my taste, and finding anyone with something positive to say about the DMV is a nearly impossible task. How about calling it DriveHappy? Drivexpress? CarCare? Or maybe just NotTheWorstThingInTheWorld?

Let’s think about renaming Social Security, since it appears to have the word “social” in it, which is TOO CLOSE to the dreaded “socialism” for some people, and it’s far from secure these days. Maybe we could call it PayItForward, or FutureLife, or NotEatingCatFoodWhenImSeventy.

Being a bleeding-heart socialist granola-eating Prius-driving liberal, I also have some suggestions for renaming the Republican party; unfortunately, since this is a family publication, I can’t share them with you here. But I will suggest Plutocrats, and it doesn’t mean they’re from that distant (former) planet. Although that would explain some things…


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