One silver lining of the pandemic, if there can be such a thing, is that it brought into focus issues facing our society that were bubbling just beneath the surface, but didn’t get much attention in our public consciousness before. Inequality, exclusivity, racial divisions – we had no concept of what it truly means to be “all in this together.”
Another issue, though not new, is urgency around hunger in America. The pandemic shows that it’s not just the poor and underserved who have to deal with food insecurity — in times of emergency, many of us are just one or two paychecks away from the same situation. We’ve all seen the pictures of people lined up for miles to get food boxes from their local food banks, and even now, as we move toward re-opening, long lines persist. People who thought it would never happen to them now wonder how to put enough food on the table for their family. I was one of those people in 2009 during the great recession when my company closed, my money ran out, and I spent that year homeless.
For generations, food stamps, known as CalFresh in our state, have been the best, most effective program for helping to alleviate hunger. Initially, back in March of 2020 I was relieved to hear that during this national emergency, as part of the first relief package, the federal government provided emergency allotments to increase food stamps “for everyone.” But there was a flaw in that policy that left some people out, including myself. Emergency allotments were given to every CalFresh recipient except those already receiving the maximum amount for their particular household – in other words, those with the lowest incomes. One year ago, that affected me, since I was receiving CalFresh between jobs — I was supposed to start a new job on March 13th, the same day shelter-in-place orders came down and my job offer was rescinded.
As a long time anti-hunger advocate, I was happy to be represented by Western Center and Impact Fund in a lawsuit against USDA seeking permission for California to distribute emergency allotments to people receiving the full benefit amount. The lawsuit is important to me not only because I am living through the pandemic and my emergency is no less urgent than anybody else’s, but also because part of USDA’s 2020 policy played into myths, misinformation, and downright lies about CalFresh and the people who use it. Given my own personal experience, and as an advocate, I wanted to make a point of busting those myths.
The majority of CalFresh recipients are families, work at least part time, or are seniors. We can’t spend our food benefits on alcohol and cigarettes, and we don’t buy junk food out of proportion with the general population. The reality of living with food stamps is that no matter your benefit amount, with the cost of living in California, it’s often not enough to cover a household food budget for a month. Most families supplement their food stamps by going to food banks or a partner agency to get food boxes. Plus, they spend their own money from work. I saw being part of this lawsuit as an opportunity to make these points again, and I am grateful to be a part of it.
Our lawsuit was ultimately settled, and USDA also announced a change of policy that will allow people receiving the maximum food benefit every month to also receive emergency allotments, as long as there is a declared emergency. Thanks to Western Center and Impact Fund for all their work in the past and in the months to come.
Steve Summers is an Oakland resident and long time Anti-Hunger Advocate in Alameda County. He spent a year homeless during the great recession of 2008/2009 when he first became a CalFresh recipient. His most recent job was as a Naturalist for the City of Oakland. In 2017 he received a Hunger Fighter Award from the California Hunger Action Coalition.