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Western Center Roundup – December 2023


Settlement Finalized in Katie A. v. LA County Mental Health Lawsuit
After more than 20 years of litigation, the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California, Western Division, has given final approval to a settlement in the longstanding case Katie A. v. Los Angeles County. The Court’s action ends a federal class action lawsuit that, over time, led to significantly improved mental health services for children and young adults in foster care or who face imminent risk of placement in foster care.

Filed in 2002, the suit alleged the county and state agencies failed to provide legally mandated health care services to youth in its custody. The lack of mental health services harmed foster youth by increasing the likelihood they would be removed from their homes.  Removals compound trauma for foster youth, making the lack of appropriate care even harder for children already struggling with mental illness.

“In the beginning of this lawsuit, we saw many youth have multiple moves due to behaviors that weren’t being addressed with treatment, and they were losing important connections to family and community,” said Antionette Dozier, one of Western Center’s lead attorneys on the case.


Tis the Season to Donate (Unspoiled) Food
One in five Californians suffers from chronic hunger, but a growing food rescue effort is poised to shrink that number.

About two years ago, one of the most significant waste reduction mandates went into effect across the state. SB 1383 ambitiously seeks to reduce organic waste  by 75% by 2025.  This means that around 20 million tons of potential waste may soon be diverted from landfills to kitchen tables.

Throughout California, municipalities  are setting up  programs to  ensure that grocery stores, produce marts, corporate kitchens, schools,  and other commercial food generators  set protocols to inspect leftover food before it spoils and see that it reaches those who are hungry as fresh as possible. For years prior to SB 1383, many food generators resisted donating food. Now with legislation, a robust network of waste reduction programs and streamlined donation processes,  support is growing.

For example, Food Finders, which has a network of over 470 partners across five counties in Southern California, has been helping food generators comply with the mandate. In particular, they facilitate same-day, donor-to-recipient delivery of edible foods.

FULL BLOG

Congress’ Games Mean People Go Hungry

I can’t keep track of the number of days I’ve gone without lunch. Oftentimes, I eat breakfast at 8 a.m. and then wait 12 hours and eat dinner at 8 p.m., all so I don’t go to bed hungry. Being a full-time student and part-time preschool teacher, it was hard to be my best for myself and my young students.

As someone who experienced homelessness at age 19, I know how to make ends meet with meager funds. I know how to stretch my meals and what to purchase that won’t perish quickly. But no one should ever have to face the difficult circumstances and impossible choices I had to make.

As one of the plaintiffs in a class action lawsuit against the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), brought by Western Center on Law and Poverty and Impact Fund, I am sharing my story because food should not be treated as “optional.” Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) food benefits are not a “nice to have,” they are a “need to have” for 40 million Americans, many of whom are children, seniors and people with disabilities. In a major victory, we secured October benefits for this year and years to come, but each month after is another fight.

Congress averted a shutdown on Sept. 30 by passing a continuing resolution. If Congress can’t get their act together, millions will go hungry as the new year starts, thanks to their political games.

I make $1,300 a month as a part time preschool teacher. I am studying full-time to continue my impactful work with preschoolers and work toward more opportunities and better financial stability that are opened up to me with a degree. My monthly expenses for my basic needs such as rent, utilities, car insurance and gas needed to go to work, and out-of-pocket medical expenses, are almost identical to my monthly take-home income. I try to save any extra income from the months where I can work more hours to use in the months when my basic expenses go over my take-home pay. CalFresh, California’s version of SNAP, provides me with $88 in food benefits a month, down from $250 during the pandemic.

 

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Inequality Insights

Millions of low-income households will continue receiving Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits through November and December, even if there is a federal government shutdown, U.S. Department of Agriculture officials said this week.

More than 2.9 million California households receive federal food assistance through CalFresh, CalMatters’ Justo Robles reports. Twenty percent of Californians are food insecure — meaning they lack reliable access to healthy food.

Jacqueline Benitez is one of them. She earns about $1,300 a month working part-time as a preschool teacher in Los Angeles County. The 22-year-old also is a junior at California State University, Long Beach.

Monthly rent for her Bellflower apartment recently jumped $200, she said, not leaving much for food. Now more than ever, Benitez said, her $88 monthly CalFresh benefit is essential. Eating properly helps her focus while studying and working with children.

“With $88 I try to buy things that will last, like rice, pasta, popcorn chicken,” she said.

“Without CalFresh benefits, I would be eating half a burger and leave the rest of it for tomorrow.”

In prior threats of federal shutdowns, welfare benefits were guaranteed only through September, the end of the government’s fiscal year. A federal shutdown would risk more than 40 million people’s access to food and nutrition assistance programs nationwide.

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We Can End Food Insecurity: CalFresh Awareness Month

Over 3 million Californians use CalFresh, California’s version of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). CalFresh offers individuals and families a food and nutrition safety net. Californians saw a boost in their allotments during the COVID-19 pandemic: however, those are coming to an end.   

Across L.A County community-based organizations are actively doing outreach to enroll community members in CalFresh. Community-based organizations meet people where they are, often have lived experience, and share the cultural and linguistic needs of community members.  

A community kick off event and resource fair was held Thursday, May 4th at Amelia Mayberry Park in Whittier, CA to highlight CalFresh Awareness Month and connect families with this vital program.  

Other community events will be held throughout the month of May in partnership with 88 cities in the county, university and community college campuses, school districts, farmers markets, churches and others.  

This model of building on community networks has served as a “best practice” outreach strategy that has been implemented by other counties across California. 

Partnerships like these are possible thanks to funding from the Federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA). The Los Angeles Department of Public Social Services and Department of Public Health administer grants to community-based organizations who can raise awareness around food access and assist community members in registering for CalFresh.  

A recent study by the Public Exchange at the USC Dornsife College found that over 800,000 households in LA county experienced food insecurity between July 2021 to July 2022, an increase of 24% from the previous year. The impact on Black and Latino residents was three times higher than white residents.  

The hunger cliff continues to loom over many Californians. Without Congressional and State action, many Californians will see a steep decrease in their allotments, leading to preventable hunger.  

While politics are at play in the national scene, in our state there are important legislative efforts to increase CalFresh benefits, which have not kept pace with inflation. SB 600 by Senator Caroline Menjivar, co-sponsored by advocates like GRACE/End Child Poverty CA and Nourish CA, would raise the CalFresh minimum benefit to $50 a month.  

Food insecurity will be felt by communities that already face unjust economic and health disparities. Seniors are one of the many groups affected and in March we covered the story of two seniors struggling with food insecurity during their retirement. 

It doesn’t have to be this way. California, as the 4th largest economy in the nation, has the means and resources to ensure no one goes hungry. Food insecurity, like many other disparities, is entirely preventable. The pandemic showed how resources that are justly allocated can save lives and end poverty; will our lawmakers step up to prevent our State’s growing food insecurity?  

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. 

Hunger Relief Heroes Ensure Most Vulnerable Households Receive Critical Food Benefits

Three years out from the beginning of the COVID 19 pandemic, it easy to forget what it was like before vaccines when we worried about food shortages, long lines at the grocery store, washing the stuff you brought home from the store, or even if it was safe to leave our homes. In 2020, I worked at an online retailer and I was returning to that job but not until May. I needed a gig in the interim. Through my volunteer advocacy with the Food Bank, I got a contract job helping to organize an event called Hunger Action Day. I had just started when Covid hit and everything went into lockdown and shelter in place.

The event was canceled and without income, I applied for unemployment and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits. I lived on my savings till those came through.

Congress passed relief measures to support people like me who were out of work due to the pandemic, increasing unemployment for example. Congress also authorized increased food benefits called Emergency Allotments for people on SNAP to help with the financial uncertainty and higher food prices. But the U.S. Department of Agriculture undermined this relief by saying that Emergency Allotments were only available to round people’s food benefits up to the maximum amount for their household size. That meant that people with little or no income, like me, who were already receiving the maximum would not get any additional help.

When I learned what the USDA did, I was angry and frustrated for a moment. Angry that it was unfair and frustrated knowing it’s just so typical of those who’ve made it their mission to attack safety net programs, especially SNAP. There’s so much dis-information about SNAP out there. Maybe the worst of myth is that SNAP covers a person’s food budget for the month for them or their family. It surely does not. People were receiving the maximum amount of SNAP because they needed it and qualified for it. And they needed the additional Emergency Allotments because of the pandemic—to deal with food shortages, higher prices, long lines, and living in lockdown—regardless of the amount of regular SNAP they were receiving. In those days, just being able to access food had a cost to it. But despite overwhelming bipartisan support for Emergency Allotments, the USDA and the Trump Administration were thwarting the intent of the COVID relief passed by Congress. They were playing politics with people’s hunger.

That is why I decided to take a stand and together with my co-plaintiff Robin Hall sue the USDA to make Emergency Allotments available for everyone. I first had to rely on CalFresh as a result of the Great Recession in 2008 and spending 2009 homeless. In my post-homeless life, for a number of years I was a volunteer at the Food Bank. I worked with a group of volunteers from the community all with some experience with food insecurity, who would advocate mostly on the policy side on hunger and poverty issues. That work was very gratifying and there were many successes. Things stayed shut down for months, when they came back, they came back slowly and different from what they were. I was thinking about how I could continue somehow as an anti-hunger advocate when the opportunity to participate in our lawsuit with the Western Center on Law & Poverty and The Impact Fund.

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PRESS RELEASE: LA County Sued for Failing to Provide Timely Emergency Food Assistance to Eligible Households

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Lawsuit accuses county of violating state and federal laws mandating expedited processing of CalFresh food benefits

LOS ANGELES — Los Angeles County fails to comply with California’s requirement that counties expedite the processing of urgent applications for CalFresh (formerly known as food stamps). The neediest CalFresh applicants – those whose income is less than $150 per month and who have less than $100 in resources, or whose housing costs are more than their income and resources — are entitled to have their applications processed within three days. But in Los Angeles, thousands of vulnerable households are going hungry each month because the county fails to process their applications on time.

Now, two organizations fighting hunger in Los Angeles and one CalFresh recipient who had to wait over a month for CalFresh when he and his father had no money for food are suing the county, demanding that it comply with its obligation to grant expedited access to critical food benefits.

The lawsuit—filed Monday in Los Angeles Superior Court by Hunger Action Los Angeles, Los Angeles Community Action Network (LACAN), and Peter Torres-Gutierrez —includes data showing the county has been in violation of both state and federal law for months. Federal law mandates that expedited food assistance benefits be provided in no more than seven days, and California sets the limit for urgent applications at three days.

“CalFresh is our first and best line of defense against hunger; if it doesn’t function properly thousands can be left with no means to get basic food,” said Frank Tamborello, Executive Director at Hunger Action Los Angeles. “When someone is hungry, every hour matters. It’s unconscionable that in Los Angeles County, the most vulnerable people have to wait for weeks to get access to something as basic as food assistance.”

“Hunger is real, and it has gotten worse during the pandemic,” said Todd Cunningham, Food and Wellness Organizer with Los Angeles Community Action Network (LACAN). “These county delays make it harder for people—especially houseless people—to access food and take care of their health.”

In September 2021, the county failed to meet the state’s three-day timeline for nearly one-third of all eligible applicants, leaving over 4,900 individuals and families who qualify for expedited benefits without access to CalFresh. In August, the numbers were even worse: the county left more than half of eligible households without access to CalFresh, forcing over 7,600 individuals and families to go hungry. Over the last year, the County has violated its duty to more than 54,000 households, forcing some applicants to wait more than a month to receive emergency food assistance.

“This is the county’s self-reported data, and it’s staggering,” said Western Center on Law & Poverty attorney Alex Prieto. “Each time the county fails to process an application on time, it puts people in danger of hunger and pushes parents into a devastating struggle to provide for their children’s most basic needs.”

“The harms that result when people—especially children—go hungry are significant and far-reaching. Even short periods of hunger can have profound and long-lasting effects on an individual’s physical and mental health,” said Lena Silver, an attorney with Neighborhood Legal Services of Los Angeles County (NLSLA). “People who are eligible for expedited service CalFresh are already in desperate financial situations. We are bringing this lawsuit to force the County to comply with the law, to ensure that every eligible individual and family gets the food they need when they need it – and not a minute later.”

Read the full complaint here.

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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.

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.

 

 

 

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

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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.