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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. 

PRESS RELEASE: LA County Agrees to Stop Delaying Food Assistance to Neediest Applicants

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Court injunction will require county to process all emergency CalFresh applications in three days

Los Angeles, CA – In a major victory in the fight against hunger, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted today to enter into a permanent injunction for a case filed in Los Angeles Superior Court, Hunger Action Los Angeles, et al. v. County of Los Angeles, et al., requiring the county to process and approve emergency CalFresh applications in a timely manner. The injunction will impact thousands of vulnerable families experiencing dangerous food insecurity in Los Angeles County each month.

“We wouldn’t tolerate it if the fire department took a day to respond to a fire, and we shouldn’t waste time when people are hungry,” said Frank Tamborello of Hunger Action Los Angeles, one of the organizational plaintiffs in the lawsuit. “The county has the resources, provided by the federal government, to respond immediately.”

The State of California requires counties to expedite food assistance applications for people with extremely low incomes who are homeless or whose housing costs exceed their resources or monthly income. But for more than a year, LA County consistently failed to process emergency applications for CalFresh—formerly known as food stamps—in under three days as required by law.

“We are heartened the county, in entering this agreement, acknowledges that hunger cannot wait,” said Lena Silver, an attorney with Neighborhood Legal Services of Los Angeles County (NLSLA). “These are applications for emergency assistance, and the county must treat them with an appropriate level of urgency.”

Two organizations fighting hunger in Los Angeles—Hunger Action Los Angeles and the Los Angeles Community Action Network—along with an applicant affected by the delays, sued the county in November, demanding that it comply with its obligation to grant expedited access to critical food benefits.

“The county’s blatant disregard for people living in extreme poverty, who tend to be Black and Brown, was exacerbating racial inequities in disadvantaged communities like Skid Row and South Los Angeles,” said Todd Cunningham of the Los Angeles Community Action Network. “We sued to force the county to follow the law.”

Represented by NLSLA, Western Center on Law and Poverty, Public Interest Law Project, and pro bono counsel from Sidley Austin LLP, the groups presented the court with data showing the county had violated both state and federal law for months leading up to the lawsuit. In one month alone, the county failed to meet the state’s three-day timeline in 53 percent of eligible applications, leaving 7,600 individuals and families who qualify for expedited benefits without access to CalFresh. Some applicants had to wait more than a month to receive emergency food assistance.

“Following the filing of the lawsuit, the county’s processing of applications has improved – but not nearly enough,” said Lauren Hansen of Public Interest Law Project. “Each and every one of these emergency applications must be processed immediately.”

Peter, a CalFresh applicant named in the lawsuit, was 17 years old when his father suffered a severe stroke that left him partially paralyzed and unable to continue his work as a day laborer. Peter should have received access to CalFresh in three days. Instead, the family heard nothing from the county for 17 days, at which time someone called and left a message. When Peter’s father tried to return the call, he got a “high call-volume” message and was disconnected. Then he received a letter stating Peter’s application had been denied.

A November 2021 report from the county Department of Public Health warned of the “devastating consequences” of food insecurity, which significantly increases the risk of type 2 diabetes, hypertension, obesity, and psychological distress or depression. In childhood, food insecurity is associated with delayed development, diminished academic performance, anxiety and depression, and early-onset obesity.

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Hunger Action LA (HALA) works to end hunger and promote healthy eating through advocacy, direct service, and organizing.

The Los Angeles Community Action Network (LA CAN) consists of extremely low-income and homeless people, primarily those living in Downtown LA and South Central LA. LA CAN recruits organizational members and builds indigenous leadership within this constituency to promote human rights and address multiple forms of oppression faced by extremely low-income, predominately African-American and Latino, residents. LA CAN focuses on issues related to civil rights and preventing the criminalization of poverty, women’s rights, the human right to housing, and healthy food access. LA CAN also has projects focused on economic development, civic participation and voter engagement, and community media.

Neighborhood Legal Services of Los Angeles County (NLSLA) is a steadfast advocate for individuals, families, and communities throughout Los Angeles County. Each year NLSLA provides free assistance to more than 100,000 people through innovative projects that address the most critical needs of people living in poverty. Through a combination of individual representation, high impact litigation and public policy advocacy, NLSLA combats the immediate and long-lasting effects of poverty and expands access to health, opportunity, and justice in Los Angeles’ diverse neighborhoods.

Public Interest Law Project (PILP) advances justice for low-income people and communities by building the capacity of legal services organizations through impact litigation, trainings, and publications, and by advocating for low-income community groups and individuals.

Sidley Austin LLP is a premier law firm with a practice highly attuned to the ever-changing international landscape. The firm has built a reputation for being an adviser for global business, with more than 2,000 lawyers worldwide. Sidley maintains a commitment to providing quality legal services and to offering advice in litigation, transactional, and regulatory matters spanning virtually every area of law. The firm’s lawyers have wide-reaching legal backgrounds and are dedicated to teamwork, collaboration, and superior client service.

Western Center on Law & Poverty fights in courts, cities, counties, and in the Capitol to secure housing, health care and a strong safety net for Californians with low incomes, through the lens of economic and racial justice.

 

 

 

AB 826 (Santiago) Pandemic Food Assistance Vetoed – Statement from Bill Co-Sponsors

The Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights (CHIRLA), California Association of Food Banks and Western Center on Law & Poverty were proud to sponsor Assembly Bill 826, introduced by Assembly Member Miguel Santiago, which would have established emergency food assistance in the form of two $600 payment cards for use at grocery stores.

During this pandemic, Assembly Bill 826 was the only bill passed by the legislature to provide food assistance for those affected by COVID-19. It was vetoed by the Governor last night.

We are disappointed in the veto and disagree on its message, which states that it would have had “General Fund impact annually.” This bill sought to provide a onetime allocation of emergency funds to prevent hunger during a pandemic.

Hunger is a persistent problem in California, but during the COVID-19 public health crisis, many more of the state’s residents are suffering with hunger for prolonged periods of time. These alarming rates of hunger have reached levels that surpass those seen during the Great Recession. Most impacted are immigrants who have lost wages from employment in the hospitality, restaurant, janitorial, hotel worker, agricultural, garment worker and food packing industries.

The loss of wages among this workforce is often a result of contracting COVID-19 in a high risk working environment with inadequate access to Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), caring for a family member who has contracted the virus, or losing hours or a job as a result of the stay-at-home orders. In Fact, in California, rural communities with large numbers of food-system workers, like farmworkers and meatpackers, for example, have an infection rate that is five times higher on average than comparable counties.[i] Furthermore, the Latinx community in California are getting sick and dying from COVID-19 in disproportionately high numbers:[ii]

At the height of state’s shutdown in April, approximately a quarter of Californians, 10 million people, were food insecure.[iii] Food insecurity is particularly bad among families with children. 40% of families with children 12 and under across the U.S. were food insecure in April, and in almost one in five households of mothers with children age 12 and under, children experienced food insecurity. [iv]

What’s more, according to Census Bureau data, from May 28 to June 2, 2020, Black and Hispanic or Latinx households were twice as likely as white households to report that they sometimes or often do not have enough to eat. Among households with children, 21 percent of Hispanic or Latinx respondents and 27% of Black respondents reported that they are currently experiencing hunger.[v]

The rapid increase in food insecurity among immigrant workers was also exacerbated by the unprecedented increase in food prices, [vi]  school closure, [vii] and by the closure of soup kitchens and congregate meal programs. [viii]

Federal COVID-19 relief helped Americans prevent hunger. This included increases in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, Pandemic Unemployment, and CARES Act stimulus payments, 16% of which were spent in the first week to purchase food.[ix] But immigrant families have been largely locked out of this help.

Thanks to fast action by the California Department of Social Services, millions of families with children, including immigrant families ineligible for other benefits, were helped with federal Pandemic-EBT benefits, and the impact of that program to reduce hunger was well documented and significant.[x] But those resources were spent months ago, and while we are hopeful an extension to Pandemic-EBT will be enacted in the federal Continuing Resolution, there is no guarantee that it will or that the benefits will come swiftly enough to stave off hunger that will have lifelong consequences for low-income Californians.

Although California’s two million undocumented immigrants are an integral part of our society, paying taxes and risking their lives to continue performing essential services that keep California running and put food on all of our tables, there are currently no protections in place to support them should they or someone in their family lose income as a result of contracting COVID-19 or lose their job as a result of the public health orders to prevent the spread of the disease. AB 826 would have helped to counter that reality and would have reinforced to the immigrant community that they will not be forced to suffer some of the most detrimental impacts of the pandemic without help.

CHIRLA, California Association of Food Banks and Western Center are disappointed in tonight’s veto of AB 826 (Santiago) which leaves the state of California with no plan to address hunger for our immigrant communities in the weeks ahead.  We will urgently request a meeting with the Governor and his team to ask about their plan for addressing the unprecedented levels of hunger in the weeks and months ahead. We are committed to bringing this issue next year because hunger and COVID-19 will continue to impact low-income and communities of color.

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For more information, please contact:

Joseph Villela jvillela[at]chirla.org

Andrew Cheyne andrew[at]cafoodbanks.org at California Association of Food Banks

Jessica Bartholow jbartholow[at]wclp.org at Western Center on Law & Poverty

 

End Notes

[i] https://thefern.org/2020/06/covid-19-shows-no-sign-of-slowing-among-food-system-workers/

[ii] https://www.sacbee.com/news/coronavirus/article243965407.html

[iii] https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2020/06/pandemic-food-banks-hunger/613036/

[iv] https://www.brookings.edu/blog/up-front/2020/05/06/the-covid-19-crisis-has-already-left-too-many-children-hungry-in-america/

[v] https://www.census.gov/householdpulsedata

[vi]  https://www.usatoday.com/story/money/2020/05/20/food-prices-soar-coronavirus-covid-19/5226969002/

[vii] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/mar/21/coronavirus-300-million-children-to-miss-school-meals-amid-shutdowns

[viii] https://www.wsj.com/articles/coronavirus-threatens-to-overwhelm-cities-social-safety-net-11585474200

[ix] https://www.forbes.com/sites/sarahhansen/2020/04/15/how-are-americans-spending-those-1200-stimulus-checks-food-gas-and-bills/#2d5595f02e5a

[x] New America’s Report: “It has meant everything”: How P-EBT Helped Families in Michigan, https://www.newamerica.org/public-interest-technology/reports/it-has-meant-everything-how-p-ebt-helped-families-in-michigan/ ; New America/FRAC/Ed Trust Snapshot: Pandemic EBT: “It has Meant Everything”: How P-EBT Helped Families in Michigan, https://newamericadotorg.s3.amazonaws.com/documents/Two-Page_Snapshot_of_Michigans_P-EBT_Program.pdf; The Hamilton Project’s Report: The Effect of Pandemic EBT on Measures of Food Hardship, https://www.hamiltonproject.org/assets/files/P-EBT_LO_7.30.pdf

 

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