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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.

Bill Would Ensure School Meals for All Kids

“Members of the School Meals for All coalition include: The Office of Kat Taylor, the Center for Ecoliteracy, NextGen California, California Association of Food Banks, Food Research & Action Center, GRACE/End Child Poverty, Nourish California, Eat.Learn.Play Foundation, Western Center on Law and Poverty, Common Sense, Center for Science in the Public Interest, Growing the Table, Frog Hollow Farm, Stemple Creek Ranch, Culinary Farm at Marin Country Day School, Neighborhood Industries, and TomKat Ranch Educational Foundation.”

https://www.davisvanguard.org/2021/02/bill-would-ensure-school-meals-for-all-kids/

PRESS RELEASE: Court of Appeal Says California Must Replace Electronically Stolen Food Benefits

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Decision reverses lower court ruling; says Department of Social Services is responsible for replacing food benefits stolen from Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) card holders

Los Angeles, CA — The California Court of Appeal has ruled that the Department of Social Services must replace CalFresh benefits (formerly “food stamps”) when they are electronically stolen from recipients. Attorneys with Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles (LAFLA) and Western Center on Law & Poverty represented plaintiffs Esther Ortega and Joe Soza, both of whom are recipients of CalFresh benefits who experienced electronic theft. Hunger Action Los Angeles, an organization working to end hunger and promote healthy eating through advocacy, direct service, and organizing, was also an organizational plaintiff in the case.

“This decision makes it clear that people don’t have to go hungry if through no fault of their own, their CalFresh benefits are stolen,” said Frank Tamborello, Executive Director of Hunger Action LA. “It’s especially critical during this pandemic, with hunger at an all-time high and electronic theft increasing.”

The Court of Appeal decision in Esther Ortega et al., v. Kimberley Johnson, et al. reverses a trial court decision that said the state is not responsible for replacing stolen benefits, and requires reversal of the California Department of Social Services’ previous denial of the plaintiffs’ requests for replacement benefits.

“It’s disappointing that a high-tech and food-abundant place like California has been failing to protect poor households against the electronic theft of food benefits, as existing regulations require,” said Andrew Kazakes, a LAFLA Staff Attorney who worked on the case. “This decision will bring welcome relief to victims of EBT skimming theft across the state, especially during the pandemic when the importance of food security is that much greater.”

Ms. Ortega and Mr. Soza both had their food benefits stolen by people who obtained their account numbers and PIN’s (Personal Identification Number) — a form of theft that has become increasingly common. The thieves made unauthorized transactions using their account information, and drained close to their entire monthly allotment of CalFresh benefits.

As electronic theft becomes more technologically sophisticated, more low-income Californians are left without essential anti-hunger food benefits, even when they protect their EBT cards and personal information. The result in this case will ensure that CalFresh recipients have their benefits replaced when they are stolen by electronic thieves, and that they don’t go hungry when they are victims of high-tech theft.

“What’s most striking is that the California Department of Social Services acknowledged that the plaintiffs were not at fault in the theft of their benefits, but still left them to bear the loss,” said Alexander Prieto, a Senior Attorney on the case for Western Center. “The Department knows that people’s benefits are being stolen electronically. It puts out notices and warnings; yet before this ruling, it ignored the requirement to ensure that victims of the crimes receive their crucial food benefits.”

California’s CalFresh rules protect electronic theft victims, but replacing benefits is optional under federal law, which ultimately governs CalFresh and similar programs in other states, even though the United States Department of Agriculture also knows the benefits are vulnerable to theft. “Hopefully this ruling sets the stage for a better federal model,” Prieto said.

The point of food assistance is to make sure people can eat. With California and the country both experiencing record levels of hunger, it’s vitally important for government to safeguard necessary food assistance for eligible recipients. This ruling is an important step for Californians who rely on CalFresh benefits to prevent hunger.

Read the Court of Appeal decision here.

 

Contact:

Courtney McKinney, cmckinney[at]wclp.org

Sara J. Williams, sjwilliams[at]lafla.org

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

About Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles – Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles (LAFLA) seeks to achieve equal justice for people living in poverty across Greater Los Angeles. LAFLA changes lives through direct representation, systems change and community empowerment. It has five offices in Los Angeles County, along with four Self-Help Legal Access Centers at area courthouses and three domestic violence clinics to aid survivors.

About Western Center on Law & Poverty – Through the lens of economic and racial justice, 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 low-income Californians.

 

 

 

 

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