This post is by guest author Kim McCoy Wade, Chief of the CalFresh & Nutrition Branch at the California Department of Social Services.

Piles of black ash surround a chimney where a home once stood. A family evacuated from their home during the fires moves in with extended family hundreds of miles away. Hotels, vineyards, and wineries that employed people across the region are closed, or even gone.

This series of snapshots from the wildfires that swept across Northern California in October 2017 — and as this posts in December 2017, are sweeping across Southern California — convey the devastation felt by tens of thousands of families.

The California Department of Social Services, in partnership with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the seven impacted counties, and the two eligibility systems consortia, rushed to bring relief through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) to our neighbors in crisis. In the process, we provided nearly $3 million in federal food relief to people in crisis — and learned three key lessons for disaster and nutrition leaders:

1. Serve people where they are.

People had evacuated their homes and lost their jobs, so they weren’t always in the seven impacted counties to seek the food assistance they needed. California realized we needed to activate all of our county social services networks to serve people wherever they were displaced in the wake of fires. This meant that we allowed those seven counties to accept Disaster SNAP (D-SNAP) applications that were not just submitted in their local offices but also submitted online or in person in other California counties, via a newly named Disaster Coordinator.

The eligibility decision remained with the seven counties where the person experienced the disaster loss. The 51 county Disaster Coordinators could assist displaced clients and the seven wildfire counties with applications, verifications, face-to-face interviews, and Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) card provisions and save them from a difficult — or even impossible — trip back to the local social service office.

2. Use all the technology you can.

We were fortunate that none of our social service offices were in the path of the fires, so we could provide D-SNAP with the full local office infrastructure in place. We maximized technology in three ways.

First, we allowed online D-SNAP applications to help with client access after office hours and across the miles, as well as county management of work flow. Second, we routed all client calls to the most impacted county out of the local area and to other counties that could answer quickly and provide full services on the telephone, both to new and continuing clients. Third, we used USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service waivers to automatically replace benefits via an eligibility system and EBT technology to those clients who lost food and, once D-SNAP was approved, automatically supplement benefits to the maximum allotment during the disaster month.

3. Find new ways to reach people hit by the disaster and new to SNAP.

Our greatest area of learning is how we can best reach people who don’t know SNAP or social services. We intend to partner more with the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the state counterpart, so they can be messengers about SNAP from day one of a disaster response.

There’s a real issue of timing: D-SNAP came after our many disaster centers were winding down, so we will explore pre-registration online, as Florida has done, to let people know about D-SNAP before the week of enrollment formally begins. (Fortunately, increased supplies of emergency food from The Emergency Food Assistance Program began rolling immediately after the fires hit, and continue to do so).

Additionally, reaching diverse populations always requires community partnerships for outreach; disaster outreach requires both traditional and new community partners. (As we now look at providing disaster relief in Ventura County in Southern California, we are mapping the needs for language assistance in English, Spanish, Tagalog, and Mixteca, among other languages.) And our messaging to media about D-SNAP benefits, rules, and making the process crisper and more consistent to cut through the confusion during a stressful time.

In the face of disaster, SNAP is a powerful resource. While it would be impossible in the long-term to sustain the frantic pace in which all California CalFresh leaders responded to the wildfires, working together we were able to directly provide solutions to complex conundrums within days and sometimes hours.

Perhaps the most important lesson of all is that amazing things are possible with SNAP when powered by the collective drive of all SNAP stakeholders and our shared focus on our mission to do whatever it takes to help our neighbors in need.