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The CalFresh Hunger Games: Free falling into food insecurity with no rescue in sight.

“For politicians our hunger is a game, they want to see you starve to death before they help and say, ‘I saved these people’s lives and I took action to stop hunger in our community,’” Jesus Zavala reflects. Jesus Zavala and Alicia Zavala are both retired seniors living in East Los Angeles. They are also my parents. And after working in difficult environments their entire lives, I had hoped they could settle into an easy retirement. Instead, they have faced hardship, including constant food instability in recent years, an uneasy retirement.

 

Before coming to the United States, my father and mother worked the fields of Alta and Baja California. When they moved here with my grandfather, who came to the U.S through the Bracero Program after World War II ended, my parents naturally found work throughout the Imperial Valley right over the border from Mexico. Eventually they migrated north to the neighborhood of Boyle Heights in Los Angeles where they have lived ever since.

 

Like many retirees, my parents were hit hard during the COVID-19 pandemic which exacerbated existing economic inequity. During the pandemic, they rushed to sign up for SNAP/CalFresh. Thanks to this cushion of federally funded emergency allotments, they have managed to get by.

 

According to the U.S Department of Agriculture over 80% of SNAP beneficiaries across the country are working class families, people with disabilities, or seniors. Individual SNAP recipients on average received around $100 dollars while families received benefits based on their household size during the pandemic.

 

Although the federal government has extended the public health emergency until early May, it has stopped all funding for food stamps that began during the COVID-19 pandemic.

 

As of March 2023, food benefit amounts are now based on household income rather than the size of a household. This means that right now these federal funding cuts to CalFresh are tearing through the food security of nearly 3 million households in our state. 

 

“We lost $160 in food benefits, which leaves us with $250 to eat for the rest of March,” shares Alicia. She is a retired Teamster School Bus Driver. She smiles as she greets the adversity she is sharing with the hope and grit you find in strong union mujeres.

 

Jesus adds, “Picture this… we get around $1,900 collectively from Social Security, our mortgage is around $1,700 that leaves us with $200 cash to survive with, plus car payments, car insurance, gas, and other expenses that we all know too well.” He has worked on classic cars since he arrived in Los Angeles. He learned the trade of building muscle car engines under direction of famed hot-rodder John Geraghty.

 

He continues “At this point I have knee issues, it’s difficult to work the same way I did 30 years ago and even if I could work on classic cars on the side, the government would automatically take any current food benefits I have. It’s a lose-lose situation.”

 

More changes to SNAP programs are sure to come when the federal public health emergency ends on May 11, 2023, especially with SNAP benefits being eyed for potential federal cuts in the ongoing debt limit debate in Congress.

 

While politics are at play on the national scene, in our state there are some legislative efforts forming to respond. A bill was introduced in the California legislature on February 15 that would establish a minimum benefit in the CalFresh program by January 2025.

 

Jesus and Alicia are getting by with a tight budget. They budget in the face of rising inflation where prices on milk, eggs, and bread are skyrocketing. For them community driven food banks have been a blessing. “This is the reality for many Californians, we are doing our best to get by, our neighbors who are also retired are in a similar situation, others we know live in a house or apartment where multiple families are living in under one roof, it is the only way to survive, but we are running out of time,” says Jesus. 

 

For many time has run out, these are difficult times for far too many people in California whether we are talking about the unhoused, low-income, people of color  or working-class communities. Californians are falling off a hunger cliff at this very moment and there are no permanent policy solutions to address the food insecurity many in our state are facing.  

 

As the contradictions of today’s financialized capitalist system unravel, we must imagine new ways to address this persistent economic bifurcation of a state of prosperity and a state of precariousness.We must address the growing gap between rich and poor that continues to spread under the contagion of monopoly-finance capital. 

 

Make no mistake the gilded facade of California is peeling, and we can not sweep the flakes under the rug. Californians in poverty need a New Deal, and they need it now. 

Our fight for emergency food benefits was worth it, for me and every Californian who needs it.

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.

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