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Making Food Prescriptions a Reality in California

If you are a Type 1 diabetic there are two constants in your life: the rising cost of insulin or the constant pain of the pricking needle. Now, imagine your doctor offered a new alternative to help manage your glucose.

What if your doctor could prescribe food tailored to your specific nutritional needs?

Unbeknownst to many, such a program has been in the works for the past five years. Food prescription pilots outside of the state have been around for decades. Around 2018 California officially began its food as medicine services. By early 2022, the California Department of Health Care Services (DHCS) began a 5-year initiative to reform Medi-Cal, called CalAIM.

CalAIM is attempting to address the root causes and complex health needs in various communities across the state. Beginning in 2022 the DHCS began to offer 14 community support services that health plans can opt-in to, they provide an alternative to higher-cost medical services. Designed to address people’s health-related social needs, some of these community supports include navigation services for housing and sobering centers. By the end of 2022, all 58 counties in California offered at least two community services,  while 16 counties offered at least 10, and 3 counties (Sacramento, Riverside, and San Diego County) offered all 14 community support services.

The second most popular service among all counties is the Medically Supportive Food & Nutrition (MSFN) support. The spectrum of medically supportive food and nutrition interventions includes: medically tailored meals, medically supportive meals, food pharmacies, medically tailored groceries, medically supportive groceries, produce prescriptions and nutrition supports when paired with food provision. Different counties have different approaches to where and how food is received. Whatever the approach, around 26,000 Medi-Cal members have used this community support.

These amazing food and nutrition supports have been proven to be successful at helping people to treat, manage, or even prevent chronic health conditions as seen in pilots and studies not only across California but also nationally. These programs are an especially critical tool towards achieving health equity goals since BIPOC communities are disproportionately impacted by health issues and poverty. A recent study shows that Black Californians are nearly twice as likely to be diagnosed with diabetes than white Californians and more than 10% more likely to be diagnosed with high blood pressure.

Western Center’s own Whitney Francis shares her experiences on the frontlines of this work, “Having previously worked in food pharmacies, I’ve seen first-hand how our patients were empowered to manage their health through accessing fresh produce weekly, especially for patients who struggled with issues such as food and housing insecurity.”

The time is now to make Medically Supportive Food and Nutrition (MSFN) accessible to more Californians. We need to be scaling this CalAIM support up; this means investing in outreach and education to make providers and patients aware of this community support and how to access it, assisting food/nutrition providers in establishing contracts with health plans, and establishing Medically Supportive Food and Nutrition as a permanent part of Medi-Cal.

Last year, Assemblymember Mia Bonta from Oakland introduced AB 1644, a bill that would transition medically supportive food and nutrition services a from an optional service under a time-limited waiver to a permanently covered benefit under Medi-Cal. While the bill did not get past the Appropriations Committee, the Medically Supportive Food & Nutrition coalition, co-led by SPUR and the Food as Medicine Collaborative who co-sponsored AB 1644, are preparing to reintroduce a similar bill, AB 1975. One of the major updates to the bill this year is more robust language incentivizing sourcing food from small and medium-sized farms, minority-owned farms, and farms using organic, regenerative, and other climate-smart practices – if passed, this would be a big win for the health of Californians, the planet, and our local economies.

California needs this — make no mistake this is an opportunity to invest in the long-term health of Californians. The benefits of food as low-cost medicine far outweigh the immediate costs it is said to incur for our state.

Whitney Francis agrees, she says, “these kinds of health interventions help to bridge the siloes between healthcare and social and economic factors that impact one’s health. That’s why I’m excited to support advocacy efforts to expand access to these services under Medi-Cal.”

I agree with my colleague, 2024 should be the year we make medically supportive foods and nutrition a more accessible reality.

There is no other time than now to take bold steps and get AB 1975 across the finish line and make an impact on Black and Latinx lives and offer food as medicine.

To stay updated on legislative advocacy for AB 1975, you can visit MSFNCA.org/contact and sign up for the Medically Supportive Food & Nutrition coalition updates.

‘Tis the Season…To Donate (Unspoiled) Food

By Abraham Zavala-Rodriguez, WCLP Outreach & Advocacy Associate

One in five Californians suffers from chronic hunger, but a growing food rescue effort is poised to shrink that number.

About two years ago, one of the most significant waste reduction mandates went into effect across the state. SB 1383 ambitiously seeks to reduce organic waste  by 75% by 2025.  This means that around 20 million tons of potential waste may soon be diverted from landfills to kitchen tables.

Throughout California, municipalities  are setting up  programs to  ensure that grocery stores, produce marts, corporate kitchens, schools,  and other commercial food generators  set protocols to inspect leftover food before it spoils and see that it reaches those who are hungry as fresh as possible. For years prior to SB 1383, many food generators resisted donating food. Now with legislation, a robust network of waste reduction programs and streamlined donation processes,  support is growing.  

For example, Food Finders, which has a network of over 470 partners across five counties in Southern California, has been helping food generators comply with the mandate. In particular, they facilitate same-day, donor-to-recipient delivery of edible foods.

Thanks to SB 1383, food rescue programs reach out to organizations to ensure organizations know how to communicate with local public works departments to help them become compliant. During the COVID-19 epidemic, enforcement lagged, but the work of educating food donors is back on track. 

When Food Finders engages with new partners, it provides guidance that includes defining what is “edible” food. Presently, the definition can vary, say, from store to store, because there is no federally mandated expiration date. One store may pull food three days before expiration date, others may pull it the day of. The next step for averting food waste? Federal expiration standards.

A recent study found that more than 90% of Americans misinterpret food labels, leading to the disposal of perfectly good food. This, in many ways, exacerbates the issue of “donation dumping.” 

As the work in food recovery continues without a federal mandate clarifying what is spoiled, we must remind ourselves: if you won’t eat it, don’t donate it. 

 

Settlement Finalized in Katie A. vs. Los Angeles County Mental Health Lawsuit

After more than 20 years of litigation, the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California, Western Division, has given final approval to a settlement in the longstanding case Katie A. v. Los Angeles County. The Court’s action ends a federal class action lawsuit that, over time, led to significantly improved mental health services for children and young adults in foster care or who face imminent risk of placement in foster care. 

Filed in 2002, the suit alleged the county and state agencies failed to provide legally mandated health care services to youth in its custody. The lack of mental health services harmed foster youth by increasing the likelihood they would be removed from their homes.  Removals compound trauma for foster youth, making the lack of appropriate care even harder for children already struggling with mental illness.

“In the beginning of this lawsuit, we saw many youth have multiple moves due to behaviors that weren’t being addressed with treatment, and they were losing important connections to family and community,” said Antionette Dozier, one of Western Center’s lead attorneys on the case. 

While the County has instituted numerous new systems as a result of the lawsuit, perhaps most noteworthy is the now-standard practice for youth to receive intensive home-based mental health services that aim to keep youth with severe mental health needs in a homelike setting. Previously, they were more likely to have been  hospitalized or sent to a group home.

The County first settled the lawsuit in 2003 and agreed to provide mental health services, in addition to a long monitoring process. Plaintiffs filed a successful motion in 2009 to enforce the original settlement provisions.

Eventually, the plaintiffs reached separate settlement agreements with both the state and LA County in the case.

Co-counsel include: Disability Rights California, Bazelon Center for Mental Health, National Center for Youth Law, Public Counsel.

 

New EBT Card Protection Available

A new application (for phones) is now available that can help you protect your EBT cash and food benefits. The EBT website now also has these additional security measures. The electronic thefts of benefits has dramatically increased, and these different options can help you keep your benefits safe.

 

The mobile phone application is called “ebtEDGE.” You can install that application on your phone through GooglePlay or the iStore. For computer and tablet users, you can access the card functions through the EBT cardholder portal at this link.

 

People with existing cardholder accounts set up on the website portal will have their information carried over to the new system. The first time you log in, however, you will be asked to set up challenge questions and answers for increased security. People first setting up their website accounts will also need to set up those questions/answers.

 

If you get a message that the username/password is ‘invalid’ OR you want to register for the first follow the instructions on the login page of the application.

 

EBT Customer Service will be available to help you: · Customer Service Email: [email protected]

· Toll-Free Customer Service Number* 877-328-9677

*also found on the back of EBT card

 

EbtEDGE will allow you to easily change your PIN – even turning it off until you want to use the card, so people cannot electronically steal your card and PIN information. You can also stop the card from being used out of your county or state, and other security measures. Click here to see all the new ways you can protect your benefits.

Garden Party 2023 Reflections

Western Center’s Garden Party 2023 was a night for the ages. We gathered in community, indoor and outdoor, and virtually, on October 19th to celebrate social justice and anti-poverty trailblazers at the Ebell of Los Angeles. Our annual fundraiser contributes to our own work while giving us the space to shower glitter on colleagues and partners in this fight for a more just world.

Over 300 friends, colleagues, mentors, activists, and more gathered for this beautiful, heartfelt night. Crystal Crawford, Western Center’s Executive Director, opened the night by bringing our attention to the 60 anniversary of the March on Washington and the 60th anniversary of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing that killed 4 little Black girls in Birmingham. While highlighting the connection between these historic social justice moments and the founding of Western Center, she celebrated the progress that has been made with completion of the long-awaited final report of the California Reparations Task Force this year.

In addition to the spirit of celebration in the air in recognition of Western Center’s 56 years of legal and legislative victories, the night was also heavy with grief as we mourned innocent lives lost in Israel and Palestine. Honoree Gina Belafonte powerfully drew a throughline from colonization to slavery to the abject terror and violence happening in Israel and Gaza.

It’s a stark reminder of the people we’ve lost along the way for justice, for desegregation, for voting rights, for a right to live with dignity and respect. So many are not here with us today, but we can celebrate them, say their names, and honor them in our own fights.

Our emcee, Chike Robinson, highlighted several Western Center victories and drew our attention to the jump in poverty, the largest single year jump, due to the refusal of policymakers to continue lifesaving programs like eviction assistance, the child tax credit, and more.

But those paying attention knew this would happen. Ending poverty takes all of us, and it takes direct and meaningful action, not the status quo.

We were privileged to honor four individuals and one firm this year, all of whom have been amazing partners in this work.

Harry Belafonte and Gina Belafonte received our Inaugural Derrick Bell Award 

Harry Belafonte was more than a musician, actor, activist, and philanthropist. He was a force. He was a freedom fighter. He was an anti-apartheid warrior. He was a movement mentor extraordinaire. He encouraged and challenged generations of artists of color to stretch the ways they moved within the industry and their communities.

Gina Belafonte is an award-winning Producer, Director, Actress, Educator, Prison Abolitionist, and Freedom Activist. She has been using art as a tool for over 25 years to communicate messages of hope and civic engagement.

Derrick Bell was a distinguished legal scholar, prolific writer, and tireless champion for equality. His work inspired the development of critical race theory, a body of legal scholarship that explores how racism is embedded in laws and legal institutions. Professor Bell was a co-founder and past Executive Director of Western Center.

Covington & Burling, LLP  received the Max Gillam Pro Bono Award 

Covington & Burling, LLP did 1,500 plus hours of extraordinary pro bono work in Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment (ACCE) Action v. the California Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD). Covington worked alongside Western Center and our partners to hold the state accountable for multiple systemic failures in distributing Emergency Rental Assistance Program funds intended to keep people housed during the pandemic. 

The Max Gillam Pro Bono Award memorializes preeminent litigator Max Gillam, who served as pro bono counsel when Western Center faced an attack aimed at shutting our doors and ending federal support for legal services providers

Eva Paterson, Civil Rights Activist & Social Justice Champion received the Earl Johnson Equal Justice Award

Eva Paterson is a civil rights champion and litigator with more than four decades of experience. Paterson co-founded the Equal Justice Society, a legal organization transforming the nation’s consciousness on race through law, social science, and the arts and served as its President from 2000 through August 31, 2022.

The Earl Johnson Equal Justice Award is named after and presented by Justice Earl Johnson (ret.), Scholar in Residence at Western Center on Law and Poverty, who served as an Associate Justice of the Court of Appeal, Second Appellate District, from 1982 to 2007. Both Justice Johnson and Eva Paterson are graduates of Northwestern and both made history when they served as Student Body President.

Yolanda Arias, Managing Attorney, Legal Aid Foundation of LA received the Mary Burdick Advocate’s Award 

Yolanda Arias, Managing Attorney at the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles, was selected unanimously by Western Center attorneys to receive this honor. This award recognizes Yolanda’s extensive work as a litigator, trainer, and mentor in the field of public benefits, medical debt, foster care, and immigration.

Mary Burdick joined Western Center as a staff attorney in 1975, later serving as co-Senior Counsel, and ultimately, Executive Director. During her tenure, Mary argued two of the three U.S. Supreme Court cases ever argued by Western Center attorneys, Cabell v. Chavez-Salido, 454 U.S. 432 (1982), and Pierce v. Underwood, 487 U.S. 552 (1988). 

Throughout the night we listened to music by DJ T-Kay (Dublab) who blessed us with worldwide diasporic sounds including Brasilian jazz, African funk, and Latin soul.

And we ended the amazing night with singer and philanthropist Aloe Blacc performing “Someday We’ll All be Free” in a moving special musical tribute to Harry Belafonte. 

A special thanks to the Western Center Development Team as well as their partners – the Ebell of Los Angeles, Carol Kono-Noble, First Option Entertainment, Designs by Her, Fotospark, Pablo Aguilar photography, and House of Printing for working tirelessly to make Garden Party 2023 a success.

We look forward to seeing many of you at future events and webinars, and we’ll see you next year for Garden Party 2024.

Time for Change: Rethinking SSI’s Asset Limits

Time for Change: Rethinking SSI’s Asset Limits

The Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program was created to provide financial support to low-income individuals with disabilities. While the program aims to offer a safety net for disabled folks with low income, one often-overlooked aspect is the impact of asset limits on SSI recipients. These limits force recipients to live on the edge of economic insecurity, preventing them from saving and achieving financial independence. It is time to significantly raise or eliminate the asset limit, like we have for programs like SNAP and Medi-Cal.

Today, the federal monthly SSI benefit is $914 for individuals and $1,371 for couples. As a means tested program, SSI considers all income and resources an individual has or has access to. Several factors can reduce the already modest benefit amount including other sources of income like Social Security, pensions, child support, or living with someone who provides support. 

Current asset limits require individual recipients to have less than $2,000 in assets and couples have less than $3,000. Some assets include cash, bank accounts, stocks, land, life insurance, vehicles, and anything that can be liquidated in a short amount of time. Even retirement accounts that have penalties for withdrawing funds are included. Unfortunately, these asset limits vary for individuals and couples, putting couples with disabilities at a disadvantage. To be equitable, couples should have a $4,000 resource limit. Instead, the limit is capped at $3,000 –a $1,000 penalty. This discourages couples from marrying and economically penalizes them for doing so. Certainly, the Social Security Administration (SSA) should follow a consistent resource limit so individuals and couples can be on the same level.

The asset limit issue stems from values set in an economy from five decades ago in1974. If these limits were to be adjusted for inflation, they would be around $12,378 for individuals and $18,507 for couples. Crunching the numbers, this shows a significant difference of $10,000 to $15,000 in assets, that present price levels are six times higher than in 1974, and that the 1974 dollar has lost significant purchasing power over the years, making these limits increasingly inadequate. 

Restricting savings to $2,000 and $3,000 hinders a recipient’s ability to achieve self-sufficiency and leaves them vulnerable to unexpected expenses from health crises, appliance breakdowns, or economic recession, which disproportionately affect recipients, making it that much harder to recover. As exemplified with Nicholas Hemachandra, an SSI recipient with autism, he has to cut back on hours and spend most of his earnings to avoid losing his benefits. Ray, Nicholas’ dad, hopes for a day when his son can have his own apartment when he is no longer around. However, with the $2,000 limit, it “stops him from (buying) pretty much anything (Hyatt)”. These limits create unnecessary uncertainty for parents like Ray and many others. Coupled with inflation, they further strain recipients that are struggling to keep up with rising grocery prices and housing costs. Raising these limits would encourage saving, reduce the need to exhaust savings before meeting basic needs, and encourage recipients who can, to work. 

Another issue with the outdated limit is its tendency to disrupt benefits and services, causing “churn.” On average, “70,000 beneficiaries have their benefits suspended annually”(CBPP) due to excess resources. Beneficiaries who exceed the limit not only lose benefits, but for many, more importantly, access to Medicaid. SSI eligibility automatically qualifies them for Medicaid. No senior or person with disabilities should ever have to miss essential medications or lose access to lifesaving services because of savings.

Furthermore, raising the limit would simplify the system and reduce administrative costs. Every year 40,000 beneficiaries have their coverage terminated forcing them to go through the hassle of reapplying. The Center on Budget Priorities and Policies states that SSI administration consumes 35% of SSA’s costs, even though it serves fewer recipients than SSDI (Social Security Disability Insurance), which costs 19%. 

Another finding to highlight from CBPP’s article is increasing limits has limited fiscal impact. Raising them to $10,000 and $20,000 for couples only boosts participation to 3%, while $100,000 results in a 5% increase. Surprisingly, removing the resource limit entirely results in a 6% expansion, just 1% more than the $100k threshold. This is because individuals applying for SSI typically have minimal savings, especially recipients with disabilities who have limited earnings.

Scaling resource limits to $10,000 and $20,000 wouldn’t significantly increase costs. In fact, the Center on Budget Priorities and Policy has projected an $8 billion increase over ten years, representing about 1% of program costs over that period. 

These proposed policy changes have the potential to alleviate SSA financial strain and, more importantly, empower this vulnerable population towards economic independence. While they may not drastically increase in program participation, they can help uplift recipients to a better state of economic well being and independence. Additionally, it’s important that we push for more dialogue in the policy space and look into other programs such as SNAP and TANF with more flexible asset limits.

Furthermore, it’s worth noting this September, the SSI Savings Penalty Elimination Act was introduced in Congress which aims to update SSI’s asset limits. Western Center supports this bill and will be advocating for its passage.

In conclusion, SSI’s resource limits have far-reaching consequences, forcing recipients on the edge of poverty, hindering financial security, and causing benefit interruptions. Updating these limits is vital for promoting self-sufficiency and ensuring a more effective, equitable system.

Albertson-Kroger Merger: bad for local community food security/food access, bad for local independent grocers, and bad for worker’s rights.

Albertson-Kroger Merger: bad for local community food security/food access, bad for local independent grocers, and bad for worker’s rights. 

By Abraham Zavala-Rodriguez, Outreach and Advocacy Associate

Business boomed during the COVID-19 pandemic. We were encouraged to stay at home and therefore ate more at home and used more utilities. Food costs increased, demand was high, and people continued to work through these difficult times. Grocery workers, distribution workers, and meat packing workers became sick and died as a result of COVID-19. Profits for these big grocery chains soared at historic rates while deaths increased among frontline workers

When you go to the grocery store, you see shelves and shelves of goods – from canned goods to diapers to fresh fruits and vegetables, to dairy to poultry. What you may not think about as often is the labor and logistics that went into stocking those shelves. 

Truck drivers bring food from across the country from warehouse centers to the store sites. Workers unload the truck and stock the shelves early in the morning and late at night, and others inspect the deliveries to assure the best quality. 

Depending on the grocery chain; you’ll see grocery store workers alongside personal shoppers fulfilling digital orders via an app. The grocery industry is evolving and profiting post-pandemic. Fierce competition is scaling up amongst big corporate grocers. 

In a move that will impact everyone from employees to grocery shoppers, Kroger announced its plans to acquire Albertsons for nearly $25 billion almost a year ago. This move would combine two of the largest grocery chains nationally. The deal creates a grocery chain amassing 5,000 locations across the U.S. Kroger representatives claim that it is the best option in balancing competition against Walmart and other big brands.

However, a study by the Food and Water Watch groups found that between 1993 and 2019 the number of U.S grocers fell by 30%. The U.S Department of Agriculture found that between 2005 to 2015 the market share of local independent grocers dropped in 41% of counties across the U.S. 

Small mom and pop businesses and your local bodegas or mercaditos will continue to get boxed out amidst consolidation of big corporate chains. These closures impact areas typically already experiencing food access issues. The top five grocery chains own half of the entire market, with Walmart dominating a quarter of the overall market share. 

At the beginning of this month, Kroger and Albertsons announced it will sell 400 stores to C&S Wholesale Grocers, a move meant to ease the approval process. 66 of these stores are in California. The deal is pending approval by the FTC. Make no mistake, these big grocer cartels control food prices and will hurt local economies no matter how many stores they sell to get federal approval. 

The California Attorney General’s office has expressed serious concerns with the merger. The Attorney General has the power to review and stop mergers that are anti-competitive and will cause serious harm to consumers. 

This ongoing shift of large operators consolidating will allow them to dominate price negotiations with suppliers further impacting small local operators, increasing prices and diminishing access to food. 

This merger also touches on Black and Latinx health and access to medicines. A recent USC study showed that Black and Latinx communities lack access to pharmacies. 2,254 Kroger stores have a pharmacy in store while 1,700 Albertson include a pharmacy onsite. The concern is that the merger will lead to low performing stores with pharmacies closing, widening the pharmacy access gap. Millions would have no place to pick up their medication or would have to go long distances to do so. 

Community advocates and labor groups have spoken out against the Kroger-Albertsons merger, saying the move will hurt everyday people by raising prices and impact the livelihood of grocery workers. Less competition means chains can raise prices and consumers will have few, if any, other options. The same goes for employees, who have less bargaining power and fewer choices if they want to find a different job. 

Alarmingly, the merger will lower wages for 746,000 grocery store workers in over 50 metropolitan areas of the U.S.,” with total annual earnings dropping by $334 million in those locations.This will impact all workers across these major cities, not just those Kroger-Albertson workers. 

“These major corporations are playing monopoly with the livelihoods of our communities because they have only looked at our communities through the lens of dollars and cents and never through the lens of humanity. People who live in these communities that will soon be abandoned with no resources to rely on are tired of the white flight mentality that has continually been perpetuated by CEOs who only came to the neighborhood to take the community’s resources until they are dry,” says Christopher Sanchez, Policy Advocate for Western Center on Law and Poverty.

As the merger remains under Federal Trade Commission (FTC) review, community groups and labor remain vigilant and in opposition to the latest monopolization by large corporations over food price and access. 

The United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW) opposes the merger. According to UFCW, Kroger has not been responsive to calls by the union to be more transparent about the deal. 

Governor Newsom has the chance to stand once again with working people by signing UFCW-sponsored Senate Bill (SB) 725 by Senator Lola Smallwood-Cuevas and offer grocery workers an important and much needed safety net. This bill would ensure corporations are held accountable to employees who are laid off due to a merger or acquisition by providing workers with one week’s severance pay per year of service. While the field will never be equal, this bill provides workers and their families with important economic safety protections when mergers and corporations devastate local communities and push them deeper into poverty. 

Help urge Governor Newsom to sign this critical bill into law by sending him a quick email

We must stop this merger and all large agribusiness mergers in its tracks. Agribusiness grows and continues to make horizontal and vertical growth in the grocery industry, further cornering the market in the hands of a few. 

We must support stronger enforcement of antitrust measures and uplift leaders that will champion a stand against powerful corporations impacting our food economies.  

We must continue to push state and local governments to champion the rebuilding of local food economies and try different paths. One way is to find alternatives that are controlled by local communities. One example is Mandela Grocery in Oakland, California, a food worker cooperative. Workers share in the profits and decision making. They source fresh products from locally owned Black farms. The local community and workers have a say. 

We must not forget the workers who kept us fed during difficult times, times they were experiencing and enduring too. Hundreds of thousands of people became unhoused and turned to SNAP benefits, known as CalFresh benefits in California, to get by because wages did not increase significantly. As communities with low incomes, communities of color, seniors, people with disabilities, and children continue to recover, this merger and others like it will only increase avoidable food insecurity. 

California Steps up to Stop Big Tobacco From Maliciously Targeting Black Communities

Every year, over 45,000 Black lives are lost in the United States to tobacco-induced illnesses like lung cancer, heart disease, and strokes. Tobacco corporations for decades have been intentional about their predatory targeting of Black communities. Black, Indigenous, and communities of color are already denied equitable access to social, political, and economic systems which produce inequitable and preventable negative health outcomes. 

This is an industry rooted in racism, white supremacy, and nefarious capitalism. The colonialist and extractive production models used by tobacco producers had detrimental effects on Black, Brown, and Indigenous people at its origins. Today, Big Tobacco actively continues to disrupt community health initiatives meant to improve health outcomes for profit.  

In 1964, after a report by the U.S. Surgeon General about the hazardous health impacts of smoking and subsequent federal laws limiting smoking and tobacco advertising, tobacco companies shifted their marketing to target Black communities across the country. Big Tobacco had lost their biggest youth demographic, as they were banned from advertising in colleges or from handing out loose cigarettes on campus to students under 21.  

The industry thrives due to strategic co-optation of community leadership whenever it can. Tobacco industries deployed a multi-pronged effort to prey on Black communities by working with Black influencers, handing out free cigarettes through bellhops or barber shops, and funding political campaigns or supporting Black causes. Tobacco businesses have for years tried to create fake cultural affinities like the advertising campaigns for Kool Jazz Festivals with icons such as Dizzy Gillespie.  

Tobacco companies went as far as appropriating #BlackLivesMatter, Juneteenth, and used Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. quotes in their product advertising a couple of years back. Their marketing has been a shallow and peformative public relations strategy to buy good will and actively undermine or discredit the systematic harm tobacco perpetuates. 

In 2009 the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) banned flavored cigarettes, yet menthol cigarettes slipped by due to a split in the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC). A recent survey found that 85% of Black smokers preferred menthol cigarettes. Many in congressional leadership at the time received support and donations from tobacco companies.  

States like California have been taking strong steps to disrupt Big Tobacco’s assault on Black communities. This past November, Californians voted to support Proposition 31 and uphold Senate Bill 793, authored by former Senator Jerry Hill. Once SB 793, a bill to ban the sale of flavored tobacco products and tobacco product flavor enhancers, was signed into law, Big Tobacco immediately jumped into action to delay the implementation of the law by referendum. California voters saw through this self serving and dangerous ploy and voted in favor of keeping the law, with 63.42% voting to do so. In California, flavored tobacco including menthol flavors remain banned. The industry immediately shifted to introduce new cooling non-menthol tastes.  

In response, the African American Tobacco Control Leadership Council (AATCLC) and California Attorney General, Rob Bonta sent warning letters to RJ Reynolds and Imperial Tobacco Group Brands to stop these new products from harming Black communities.  

AATCLC Co-Chair Dr. Phillip Gardiner proclaimed that this violated the state’s law prohibiting the sale of flavored tobacco, “we will not sit by as tobacco companies work to continue their assault on the health of Black people.” 

Big Tobacco is just one example of an issue at the intersection of public health and racial justice. Thankfully, lawmakers, advocates, community groups, and voters came together to call out their predatory and harmful practices. When we come together, we can stop special interests and protect the health and well-being of Californians.  

Western Center Reactions to Supreme Court Rulings on Affirmative Action

Western Center Reactions to Supreme Court Rulings on Affirmative Action  

On June 29th, 2023, the Supreme Court announced their long-awaited rulings on race-based college admissions. In an unsurprising, yet still deeply disappointing move, the court ruled affirmative action as unconstitutional. Western Center is guided by our North Star: “we seek to eliminate poverty and advance racial and economic justice by dismantling and transforming systems so all communities in California can thrive.” To do so, we must acknowledge the painful and persistent history of racism in our nation and its continued impact on the people we serve, permeating health, housing, public benefits, and access to justice. We will continue our righteous work for equity and justice in the face of these challenges. 

Below are reactions from Western Center staff and interns on this ruling: 

“I am deeply disappointed and downright angry about the Supreme Court’s decision to overrule its prior precedent permitting race to be one of many factors used in the higher education admissions process. It is quite profound that this historic blow hit us on the same day as the release of the historic CA Reparations Task Force final report. We weep and we rejoice simultaneously! We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes! I’m grateful for all the social justice warriors making a difference every day! Keep fighting the good fight! We need you!” 

  • Crystal D. Crawford, Executive Director   

“We cannot allow six people to facilitate further backsliding and complicity in bowing to anti-Black forces. Western Center on Law and Poverty fights for equity and representation in our own workplace, and in the courts, capitol, counties, and beyond. This may set us back, but it will not stop us from finding new ways to continue pushing for that equity/representation, and reparations. For this to work, we need to stop seeing affirmative action and reparations as ‘taking’ from one group and ‘giving’ to another. Just look at what happened in California after Prop. 209, and how without affirmative action things got worse, even if institutions innovated and adapted.” 

  • David Kane, Senior Attorney  

“As an Asian American, I am disappointed and saddened by the central role that a few in my community have played to defeat the use of race conscious admissions in higher education. Many Asian Americans have benefitted and continue to benefit from the use of affirmative action, not just in education but in spaces like employment and government contracting. To deny that history is ignorant. I want to offer that today’s Supreme Court decision is not reflective of the opinions of all Asian Americans, and we will continue to stand with our fellow BIPOC students and communities to ensure there is truly equal opportunity for all.” 

  • Helen Tran, Senior Attorney  

“Refusing to acknowledge or address racism and the need for remedies to address historic discrimination under the guise of ‘colorblindness’ and ‘equal protection’ instead continues to deprive ALL students of the benefit that results by providing a way to help reverse historic discrimination by providing for a diverse student body. The decision entrenches ‘racial inequality in education, the very foundation of our democratic government and pluralistic society…. racial inequality will persist so long as it is ignored,’ wrote Justice Sotomayor in a powerful dissent.” 

  • Jodie Berger, Senior Attorney  

While the Supreme Court’s majority ruling on affirmative action today was expected, it makes it no less disappointing and painful. Our work at the Western Center shows us every day that our society needs to take affirmative steps to counter the persistency of anti-Blackness and racism, not only in education, but in housing stability and opportunity, in health care access and care, in economic and financial security, and access to justice. As Justice Jackson says in her powerful dissent, “deeming race irrelevant in law does not make it so in life.” I take some comfort from Justice Sotomayer’s wise words: “Notwithstanding this Court’s actions, however, society’s progress toward equality cannot be permanently halted. Diversity is now a fundamental American value, housed in our varied and multicultural American community that only continues to grow. The pursuit of racial diversity will go on. And our pursuit of racial justice goes on.” 

  • Nisha Vyas, Senior Attorney  

“It’s ironic that on the same day that the California Reparations Task Force released a comprehensive report documenting the historical, present and ongoing discrimination faced by students in marginalized communities who seek the promise of higher education, the Supreme Court in Students for Fair Admissions, Inc v. President and Fellow of Harvard College issued a decision that espouses a “‘colorblind society.” This decision will have a profoundly negative effect on institutions of higher education to eliminate barriers of discrimination and increase opportunities for underrepresented Black, Latinx, and Indigenous people. The Supreme Court’s recent decisions have given license to discriminate against marginalized communities. Now more than ever we must take up the social justice fight of those who came before us and stand against these repressive policies and decisions.”  

  • Sandra O. Poole, Policy Advocate 

“While grieving the recent SCOTUS decision on affirmative action I reflected on my own journey to law school. As a first-generation minority student, I am the first in my family to attend a four-year university and graduate. I am also the first in my family to go to graduate school and I am going to be the first lawyer in my family. My college education means everything to me and my family. For students like me, a college education is not just about education. It’s about breaking out of the cycle of poverty and inspiring those who may come after me. In fact, I have chosen to use my education in political science and criminal justice to uplift those voices that have been traditionally unheard. Speaking from experience, affirmative action is so much more than considering race in admissions. Affirmative action is not giving a seat away or turning down an equally qualified candidate just because they are not a minority. Affirmative action is giving minority students a chance to even be considered. Additionally, affirmative action gives non-minority students a more enriching college experience by adding different life perspectives into classroom discussion. Young people today are becoming a powerful voice in politics and in their own education. Today’s SCOTUS decision does not reflect the voices of the young people who will be affected. Instead, today’s decision reflects the recent warfare on public education. My heart goes out to the prospective students who may come after me.” 

  • Selena Sanchez, Law Clerk  

How I Went from A Street Vendor to Organizing Street Vendors: A Conversation with Ana Cruz Juarez and Miguel Lucas Tax

For decades, street vendors provided food for their communities and law enforcement and health departments across the city of Los Angeles criminalized them for doing so. These vendors were disproportionately Black and Brown, often immigrants who provided food in low-income communities of color disproportionately harmed by food insecurity and food deserts. All of them operated in the informal economy, in a segregated system – upheld by outdated municipal codes and state retail food laws – that favored enforcement against and criminalization of street vendors. 

With SB 946, the Safe Sidewalk Vending Act, and SB 972, the California Retail Food Code Act, street vending has been decriminalized, and food codes have been modernized to include and welcome sidewalk food vendors into our economy. This complete one-eighty occurred because of community organizing done well. And yet, enforcement of these wins has been a challenge. Western Center recently joined as counsel in a lawsuit against the City of Los Angeles, challenging their unlawful and discriminatory “no vending zones.”  

A successful organizer not only engages one person and mobilizes them to take action. They also create such investment in the work that they develop new leaders who become organizers themselves and grow and lead the movement. In short, a great organizer doesn’t just bring people in at critical moments of mobilization. They facilitate those individuals’ growth as leaders in the movement and support developing their existing strengths. 

Ana Cruz Juarez and Miguel Lucas Tax are two such organizers. They actively work across Southern California, organizing street vendors from a non-profit organizing hub called the Community Power Collective (CPC). 

CPC has organized one of the most exciting policy campaigns in recent years. The LA Street Vendor Campaign began decades ago and has expanded into a massive statewide network, known as the California Street Vendor Campaign, which has numerous partners up and down the state. This growth stems from CPC’s vision to have the most impacted lead their own battles. And their hiring of Ana and Migueltwo influential leaders in the street vending community did just that. 

Ana Cruz Juarez 

When Ana Cruz Juarez began vending in Hollywood, other vendors shared their yearslong experience of harassment and inhumane treatment while working in the area. 

“If you think about it, street vendors who were selling before SB 946 lived a completely different experience from those selling after,” Ana shared.  

She was told that before vendors organized with the LA Street Vendor Campaign, many faced obstacles and feared harm from law enforcement. And with every story of harm, Ana began to visualize something bigger – an organizing program that not only spanned the city but was powerful enough to grow beyond the city’s boundaries. 

“I started to align my emotions to the emotions of others; the obstacles of others were my obstacles. What is happening to me locally as a street vendor is happening citywide, statewide, and in other states like New York. Our struggle is not just here but everywhere,” Ana said. 

Ana credits her successful organizing to understanding that movement leadership will continue to develop out of the meetings she is helping sidewalk vendors organize. She constantly uplifts other street vendors organizing and sees herself as a convener or facilitator of these spaces.  

She shares that vendors who are learning to organize themselves go from being one-time activists who attend council meetings to organizers themselves “who are building power by recruiting and educating other vendors.”  

Miguel Lucas Tax 

Like Ana, Miguel Lucas Tax went from vending to organizing other vendors. He would set up in Exposition Park, where street vendors like him were often targeted for selling hot dogs to sports fans and museum goers. “Vendors were intimidated. They felt voiceless, and they felt unheard,” he shares. 

Miguel was inspired by other street vendors he saw on YouTube defending themselves in street vending food hubs. Together with others, Miguel supported the early training of street vendors to use this tactic to stand their ground against harassment, intimidation, and unjust enforcement.  

“We learned to stand together with each of us providing security from the police. We’d say, ‘Don’t run. Stand next to your comrade; defend each other.” 

Local legal allies documented attacks on street vendors by the LAPD. This documentation would later form the basis for a lawsuit, leading to officer resignations.  

“I learned that when we organize ourselves and unite, we can win,” Miguel said. 

Organizing disrupts the power of the elite that sustains poverty and injustice. It seeks to live beyond a moment, a social media post or a spontaneous protest, and instead, aims to harnass that momentary energy to wage a planned and strategic campaign led by a collective or cadre who know the community. There is no “I” in organizing. Organizing calls on the “We” to lead. And at the heart of organizing is ordinary people. People directly impacted by the issue know they have power and can lead, if only they are given the space and time to grow as leaders of their community. They are the pulsing heart that drives movements. Without them, there is no hunger for change.  

That is who Ana and Miguel are. They collectively analyze and decipher the hidden social, political, and economic power that impacts vendors locally and across the state. They plan direct actions and recruit new street vendors daily who have never been involved in the movement. For them, the only way forward is to organize, struggle and win.