Subscribe Donate

Tag: Hall v USDA

Home | Newsroom |

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— I was supposed to start a new job on March 13th, the same day shelter-in-place orders came down and my job offer was rescinded.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.

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

###

 

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.”

Read More