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PRESS RELEASE: Settlement Reached with USDA to Provide Emergency Food Benefits to One Million California Households Most in Need

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Settlement comes ten months after lawsuit said denial of SNAP Emergency Allotments violated the Families First Coronavirus Response Act

SAN FRANCISCO, CA — Approximately one million California households will soon be permitted to receive emergency food benefits under new USDA guidance, thanks in part to the settlement of the lawsuit Hall v. U.S. Department of Agriculture, which was filed in the early months of the pandemic. Plaintiffs Robin Hall and Steven Summers are two Californians who were denied emergency food benefits authorized by Congress in March of 2020. In the lawsuit, Hall and Summers argued that USDA illegally denied them and other Californians emergency benefits from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (aka SNAP — CalFresh in California), solely because they already received the maximum regular benefit allotment, which was $194 per month at the time.

“Even before the pandemic, I worked hard to stretch my monthly SNAP benefits to meet my food needs. The pandemic made it much harder to get regular meals,” said Hall. “This emergency assistance will be a huge help to me and many others. I feel so honored to fight for everyone like me. It means so much to me.”

After the emergency benefits were signed into law in March 2020, USDA published guidance denying emergency benefits to households receiving the maximum regular benefit, which are those with the lowest incomes. Both Hall and Summers are single adults in groups at high risk for complications from COVID-19, who struggled to maintain healthy diets during the pandemic but were denied emergency food assistance. They are represented by the Impact Fund and Western Center on Law & Poverty.

Under the terms of yesterday’s settlement, USDA agreed to immediately stop enforcing its guidance on emergency allotments as to California. The same day, USDA issued new guidance announcing a policy change to provide emergency allotments to all households enrolled in SNAP with minimum payments of $95 per month for each household.

“This settlement represents exactly what we were hoping to achieve here in California,” said Lindsay Nako, Impact Fund’s Director of Litigation and Training, who represented Hall and Summers. “USDA’s willingness to settle this lawsuit, as well as the steps the Biden Administration has taken to make emergency food aid available to people with the lowest incomes, is cause for optimism about the future of SNAP – in California and beyond.”

Congress passed the Families First Coronavirus Response Act in March of 2020 in response to COVID-19; it was partially meant to address rising food insecurity and hunger by providing additional resources for SNAP recipients. Specifically, the Act authorized USDA to approve state requests for emergency allotments to households participating in SNAP. When California applied for the emergency aid, USDA initially denied the state’s request because it included benefits for those receiving the maximum regular benefit, which prompted the lawsuit. USDA did not approve California’s request until the state removed households receiving the maximum regular benefit.

Within days of President Biden’s inauguration, the White House issued an executive order and accompanying fact sheet that called on USDA to “[a]llow larger emergency [SNAP] allotments for the lowest-income households,” which would provide enhanced SNAP benefits to an additional 12 million people. The settlement and updated guidance mark a new path forward for USDA.

“We are pleased to see USDA turn the page toward making sure people who need help the most can get it,” said Alexander Prieto, a senior litigator for Western Center who represented the plaintiffs. “The past year has been incredibly hard for people with very low incomes. This settlement and USDA’s new guidance is a step in a different direction, and we hope for continued efforts to expand, rather than take away, vital safety net programs.”

People with very low incomes continue to face the greatest risk of hunger and food insecurity during the pandemic. They are less likely to have food reserves on hand and more likely to rely on food banks, free meal providers, and other emergency channels for food distribution, which are currently overextended and under-resourced. By acknowledging those realities and providing additional aid so individuals and families can take care of their food needs, USDA is embarking on a more humane path forward for people who rely on its assistance.

“The outcome of this lawsuit counters the mythology that SNAP covers an entire food budget,” said Summers. “Households have to supplement what they receive even in normal times — just because you get the full amount doesn’t mean you are on easy street. Hopefully this lawsuit will be a reminder of this: not enough is not enough, no matter how much you receive. I hope this is a springboard for recognizing the shortcomings in SNAP and making more changes to combat hunger.”

Contact: Courtney McKinney, cmckinney[at]wclp.org, (214) 395-2755

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The Impact Fund provides strategic leadership and support for litigation to achieve economic and social justice. We provide funds for impact litigation in the areas of civil rights, environmental justice, and poverty law. We offer innovative technical support, training, and expertise on issues that arise in large scale impact litigation. We serve as lead counsel, co-counsel, and amicus counsel in select class action and impact litigation.

Western Center on Law & Poverty fights for justice and system-wide change to secure housing, health care, racial justice and a strong safety net for Californians with low income. Western Center attains real-world, policy solutions for clients through litigation, legislative and policy advocacy, and technical assistance and legal support for the state’s legal aid programs. Western Center is California’s oldest and largest legal services support center.

USDA’s Virus Food Aid Limits Harm Neediest, 9th Circ. Told

Alexander Prieto of the Western Center on Law and Poverty argued that an injunction is needed to ensure that 1 million of the poorest families will receive food aid to avoid going hungry during the “unprecedented pandemic.” …”Congress intended these benefits to be available to all households … That includes unambiguously all SNAP households,” he said.”

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USDA’s COVID-19 Food Aid Limits Can Continue For Now

“But Alexander Baughan Prieto of the Western Center on Law & Poverty argued on behalf of the proposed class that the plain language of the statute suggests that Congress didn’t intend to restrict food aid to the neediest during the crisis, although he acknowledged that there is sparse legislative history in the record on lawmakers’ intent in drafting the emergency statute.”

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Federal Judge Denies Removal of Cap on Food Assistance Program Amid Pandemic

“At a hearing on the matter last week, attorney Alexander Prieto with the Western Center on Law & Poverty said the USDA’s interpretation of the FFCRA “seems to rest on the presumption that the max monthly allotment is sufficient in all circumstances, and that Congress assumed that was all that was necessary to put everyone up to the maximum monthly allotment.”

Pandemic Doesn’t Justify Lifting Cap on Food Stamps, Judge Rules

USDA’s COVID-19 Food Aid Limits May Be Right, Judge Says

“During the hearing on the motion Wednesday, Alexander Baughan Prieto of the Western Center on Law & Poverty argued on behalf of the proposed class that the agency’s limits are illogical and that they’re harming families most in need during this crisis.

He said Congress understood that some families were already receiving their maximum monthly allotment when lawmakers enacted the Families First Coronavirus Response Act. Prieto said Congress also understood that food prices would rise and that there would be challenges to obtaining food during the pandemic.”

Read more

PRESS RELEASE: Class Action Lawsuit Filed Against USDA For Denying Emergency Food Assistance To Californians With Greatest Need

   

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Lawsuit says USDA’s SNAP emergency allotment denials violate the Families First Coronavirus Response Act

SAN FRANCISCO — The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is illegally denying emergency food aid to those most in need, according to a federal class action lawsuit filed today in San Francisco. Plaintiffs Robin Hall and Steven Summers represent a proposed class of Californians with the lowest incomes seeking an immediate injunction of USDA guidance that denies them emergency food assistance via the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, Calfresh in California). The plaintiffs and the class are represented by Western Center on Law & Poverty and the Impact Fund.

In response to the public health crisis presented by COVID-19, Congress passed the Families First Coronavirus Response Act in March of this year. The Act sought to address rising food insecurity and hunger with significant additional resources for SNAP recipients. Specifically, the Act authorized USDA to issue additional payments to all households currently receiving SNAP benefits, which states must apply for. When California applied for the emergency aid, USDA denied the additional benefits for individuals and families already receiving the regular maximum allotment, or in other words, those with the least income.

“The cost of food has increased across the United States and here in California during the pandemic,” says Alexander Prieto, a senior litigator for Western Center on Law & Poverty. “The idea that people who were already struggling to get by before the crisis should not receive the additional help being granted to other SNAP recipients is cruel and absurd. It goes against the intent of the Families First Act, which is why we are seeking relief for our clients.”

The complaint alleges that USDA is illegally denying emergency food aid to the poorest households in California, and seeks to stop USDA from preventing California from providing emergency allotments for the plaintiffs and others in the class.

Both plaintiffs, Robin Hall and Steven Summers, are single adults in high risk groups for complications from COVID-19, who have been denied emergency food benefits. Both have decreased access to food due to the pandemic.

People with very low incomes, like Ms. Hall and Mr. Summers, face the greatest risk of hunger and food insecurity during the COVID crisis. They are less likely to have food reserves on hand to avoid frequent grocery trips, and more likely to rely on food banks, free meal providers, and other emergency channels for food distribution, which are currently overextended, under-resourced, or closed altogether.

“I’m using what savings I have to try to keep up with these rising food costs. After that, there isn’t enough left to pay rent and utilities,” says Mr. Summers. “If I’m having a hard time, I know others are too. We can’t control what this pandemic is doing to the cost of living, with all that’s going on, we need expanded benefits to help with the rising cost of everything, including food.”

One of the most immediate and urgent problems arising from the pandemic is hunger. Food prices are higher, many food staples are scarce, and shelter-in-place orders make food less accessible, particularly for those most vulnerable to the health risks of the coronavirus.

“We are simply asking USDA to do the right thing,” said Lindsay Nako, Director of Litigation and Training at Impact Fund. “The federal government has a responsibility to make sure people in this country do not go hungry during this pandemic. USDA needs to do its part.”

The complaint can be read here.

 

Contact:

Courtney McKinney, cmckinney[at]wclp.org

Teddy Basham-Witherington, twitherington[at]impactfund.org

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About The Impact Fund

We provide strategic leadership and support for litigation to achieve economic and social justice. We provide funds for impact litigation in the areas of civil rights, environmental justice, and poverty law. We offer innovative technical support, training, and expertise on issues that arise in large scale impact litigation. We serve as lead counsel, co-counsel, and amicus counsel in select class action and impact litigation.

About Western Center on Law & Poverty
Western Center on Law & Poverty fights for justice and system-wide change to secure housing, health care, racial justice and a strong safety net for low-income Californians. Western Center attains real-world, policy solutions for clients through litigation, legislative and policy advocacy, and technical assistance and legal support for the state’s legal aid programs. Western Center is California’s oldest and largest legal services support center.

 

PRESS RELEASE: Advocates Demand USDA Rescind Guidance That Strips Emergency Food Assistance From Californians With Greatest Need

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

USDA’s SNAP Emergency Allotment guidance goes against Congressional intent; may require legal action

SAN FRANCISCO — Western Center on Law & Poverty and Impact Fund have sent a demand letter to USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue, requesting the Department rescind guidance from March 20th and April 21st of this year regarding implementation of SNAP (aka food stamps) emergency allotments, which Congress provided as part of the Families First Coronavirus Response Act.

The Act is intended to provide emergency allotments of food assistance to eligible low-income households. Emergency assistance is critical for Californians impacted by the COVID-19 health emergency and related stay-at-home orders, as the State and the Nation face increased food expenses and the loss of other food assistance on which residents normally rely.

USDA’s current guidance illegally denies emergency food aid to the poorest households, preventing California from providing emergency SNAP allotments to those most in need. In its initial application to USDA for emergency allotments, California disagreed with USDA’s guidance, stating that families receiving the regular maximum SNAP benefit should receive additional emergency aid. USDA denied the proposal, and told the State to submit a revised proposal for emergency allotments that leaves households most in need – those receiving the pre-pandemic maximum SNAP benefit – without any emergency assistance.

“It is not only cruel and absurd that the poorest families are denied emergency aid during an unprecedented national emergency, it is also contrary to Congressional intent,” said Alexander Prieto, a Senior Litigator for Western Center on Law & Poverty. “By asserting this harsh and indefensible interpretation of the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, USDA is needlessly imperiling the health of countless communities for dubious reasons.”

Families with the lowest incomes face the greatest risk of hunger and food insecurity during the COVID crisis. They are less likely to have food reserves for sheltering-in-place, and more likely to rely on food banks and other emergency channels for food distribution, which are currently overextended and under-resourced. Even if households locate a food bank, they are less able to access this resource due to the increased risk of COVID exposure they face when leaving home. Additionally, these households are more likely to include young children, as well as seniors or people with disabilities.

“USDA refuses to acknowledge the disproportionate impact this crisis is having on the ability of at-risk families to meet their basic needs,” said Lindsay Nako, Director of Litigation and Training at Impact Fund. “Before COVID, wealth and income inequality punished thousands of Californians who could barely get by. Now is not the time to further exacerbate that trend. We are simply asking USDA to ensure that everyone has food to eat.”

Western Center and Impact Fund are prepared to take legal action to protect the rights of California’s low-income SNAP recipients if USDA does not rescind its current guidance by April 29, 2020.

Contact:

Courtney McKinney, cmckinney[at]wclp.org, (214) 395-2755

Teddy Basham-Witherington, twitherington[at]impactfund.org, (415) 845-1206

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