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Federal Judge Denies Removal of Cap on Food Assistance Program Amid Pandemic

“At a hearing on the matter last week, attorney Alexander Prieto with the Western Center on Law & Poverty said the USDA’s interpretation of the FFCRA “seems to rest on the presumption that the max monthly allotment is sufficient in all circumstances, and that Congress assumed that was all that was necessary to put everyone up to the maximum monthly allotment.”

Pandemic Doesn’t Justify Lifting Cap on Food Stamps, Judge Rules

USDA’s COVID-19 Food Aid Limits May Be Right, Judge Says

“During the hearing on the motion Wednesday, Alexander Baughan Prieto of the Western Center on Law & Poverty argued on behalf of the proposed class that the agency’s limits are illogical and that they’re harming families most in need during this crisis.

He said Congress understood that some families were already receiving their maximum monthly allotment when lawmakers enacted the Families First Coronavirus Response Act. Prieto said Congress also understood that food prices would rise and that there would be challenges to obtaining food during the pandemic.”

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PRESS RELEASE: Class Action Lawsuit Filed Against USDA For Denying Emergency Food Assistance To Californians With Greatest Need

   

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Lawsuit says USDA’s SNAP emergency allotment denials violate the Families First Coronavirus Response Act

SAN FRANCISCO — The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is illegally denying emergency food aid to those most in need, according to a federal class action lawsuit filed today in San Francisco. Plaintiffs Robin Hall and Steven Summers represent a proposed class of Californians with the lowest incomes seeking an immediate injunction of USDA guidance that denies them emergency food assistance via the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, Calfresh in California). The plaintiffs and the class are represented by Western Center on Law & Poverty and the Impact Fund.

In response to the public health crisis presented by COVID-19, Congress passed the Families First Coronavirus Response Act in March of this year. The Act sought to address rising food insecurity and hunger with significant additional resources for SNAP recipients. Specifically, the Act authorized USDA to issue additional payments to all households currently receiving SNAP benefits, which states must apply for. When California applied for the emergency aid, USDA denied the additional benefits for individuals and families already receiving the regular maximum allotment, or in other words, those with the least income.

“The cost of food has increased across the United States and here in California during the pandemic,” says Alexander Prieto, a senior litigator for Western Center on Law & Poverty. “The idea that people who were already struggling to get by before the crisis should not receive the additional help being granted to other SNAP recipients is cruel and absurd. It goes against the intent of the Families First Act, which is why we are seeking relief for our clients.”

The complaint alleges that USDA is illegally denying emergency food aid to the poorest households in California, and seeks to stop USDA from preventing California from providing emergency allotments for the plaintiffs and others in the class.

Both plaintiffs, Robin Hall and Steven Summers, are single adults in high risk groups for complications from COVID-19, who have been denied emergency food benefits. Both have decreased access to food due to the pandemic.

People with very low incomes, like Ms. Hall and Mr. Summers, face the greatest risk of hunger and food insecurity during the COVID crisis. They are less likely to have food reserves on hand to avoid frequent grocery trips, and more likely to rely on food banks, free meal providers, and other emergency channels for food distribution, which are currently overextended, under-resourced, or closed altogether.

“I’m using what savings I have to try to keep up with these rising food costs. After that, there isn’t enough left to pay rent and utilities,” says Mr. Summers. “If I’m having a hard time, I know others are too. We can’t control what this pandemic is doing to the cost of living, with all that’s going on, we need expanded benefits to help with the rising cost of everything, including food.”

One of the most immediate and urgent problems arising from the pandemic is hunger. Food prices are higher, many food staples are scarce, and shelter-in-place orders make food less accessible, particularly for those most vulnerable to the health risks of the coronavirus.

“We are simply asking USDA to do the right thing,” said Lindsay Nako, Director of Litigation and Training at Impact Fund. “The federal government has a responsibility to make sure people in this country do not go hungry during this pandemic. USDA needs to do its part.”

The complaint can be read here.

 

Contact:

Courtney McKinney, cmckinney[at]wclp.org

Teddy Basham-Witherington, twitherington[at]impactfund.org

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About The Impact Fund

We provide 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.

About Western Center on Law & Poverty
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 low-income Californians. 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.

 

California wants to feed students’ families. The USDA says no. Some states are doing it anyway.

“Jessica Bartholow, a policy advocate at the Western Center on Law and Poverty, said when schools are open, they serve more families and different families than the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, widely known as food stamps.

When schools are on summer break and families continue to go to school for grab-and-go meals, “it’s … because they really need to,” Bartholow said. “What we know is people will do anything to prevent their kids from going hungry, including forgoing food themselves. When parents are hungry, those kids aren’t better off.”

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Democrats Roll Out Bill to Let Restaurants Accept Food Stamps

“Jessica Bartholow, a policy advocate with the Western Center on Law & Poverty — a California-based support group focused on legal advocation of people in poverty — said in an email Wednesday her organization has worked for years to expand the Restaurant Meal Program’s reach. Working with state representatives, the organization has helped lobby to change state laws through the Golden State’s Calfresh Restaurant Meal Program, helping to expand awareness and access to the program.

“Still, the federal law limits the ability of the state to serve all people who need it during the pandemic,” Bartholow said. “Also, other states which want to offer the program are limited in their ability to do so. California has asked for a waiver to allow the state to serve all SNAP recipients through RMP during the recession but the [U.S. Department of Agriculture] hasn’t approved it.”

Democrats Roll Out Bill to Let Restaurants Accept Food Stamps

As Jobless Claims Soar, More Restaurants Might Finally Be Able to Accept SNAP Benefits

“In a letter on April 2, Sen. Murphy called on USDA director Sonny Perdue to expand RMP participation to all SNAP recipients until the end of the COVID-19 emergency. So has the Western Center on Law and Poverty, which has advocated for SNAP RMP expansion for over a decade. But the USDA hasn’t budged. “It’s a failure to lead in a time of crisis,” says Jessica Bartholow, a WCLP policy advocate.

Now Murphy and Panetta hope to legislate the solution. The National Restaurant Association, the National Council of Chain Restaurants, and Congressional Hunger Center have all expressed support. “This is a private-public partnership that works,” says Bartholow. “We have food rotting in restaurants and workers that want to work and can’t.”

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PRESS RELEASE: Advocates Demand USDA Rescind Guidance That Strips Emergency Food Assistance From Californians With Greatest Need

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

USDA’s SNAP Emergency Allotment guidance goes against Congressional intent; may require legal action

SAN FRANCISCO — Western Center on Law & Poverty and Impact Fund have sent a demand letter to USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue, requesting the Department rescind guidance from March 20th and April 21st of this year regarding implementation of SNAP (aka food stamps) emergency allotments, which Congress provided as part of the Families First Coronavirus Response Act.

The Act is intended to provide emergency allotments of food assistance to eligible low-income households. Emergency assistance is critical for Californians impacted by the COVID-19 health emergency and related stay-at-home orders, as the State and the Nation face increased food expenses and the loss of other food assistance on which residents normally rely.

USDA’s current guidance illegally denies emergency food aid to the poorest households, preventing California from providing emergency SNAP allotments to those most in need. In its initial application to USDA for emergency allotments, California disagreed with USDA’s guidance, stating that families receiving the regular maximum SNAP benefit should receive additional emergency aid. USDA denied the proposal, and told the State to submit a revised proposal for emergency allotments that leaves households most in need – those receiving the pre-pandemic maximum SNAP benefit – without any emergency assistance.

“It is not only cruel and absurd that the poorest families are denied emergency aid during an unprecedented national emergency, it is also contrary to Congressional intent,” said Alexander Prieto, a Senior Litigator for Western Center on Law & Poverty. “By asserting this harsh and indefensible interpretation of the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, USDA is needlessly imperiling the health of countless communities for dubious reasons.”

Families with the lowest incomes face the greatest risk of hunger and food insecurity during the COVID crisis. They are less likely to have food reserves for sheltering-in-place, and more likely to rely on food banks and other emergency channels for food distribution, which are currently overextended and under-resourced. Even if households locate a food bank, they are less able to access this resource due to the increased risk of COVID exposure they face when leaving home. Additionally, these households are more likely to include young children, as well as seniors or people with disabilities.

“USDA refuses to acknowledge the disproportionate impact this crisis is having on the ability of at-risk families to meet their basic needs,” said Lindsay Nako, Director of Litigation and Training at Impact Fund. “Before COVID, wealth and income inequality punished thousands of Californians who could barely get by. Now is not the time to further exacerbate that trend. We are simply asking USDA to ensure that everyone has food to eat.”

Western Center and Impact Fund are prepared to take legal action to protect the rights of California’s low-income SNAP recipients if USDA does not rescind its current guidance by April 29, 2020.

Contact:

Courtney McKinney, cmckinney[at]wclp.org, (214) 395-2755

Teddy Basham-Witherington, twitherington[at]impactfund.org, (415) 845-1206

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Pilot Program for California SNAP (CalFresh) Online Food Purchases to Begin Next Week; UFCW and Western Center Applaud Steps and Urge Further Action

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Even with this step, many SNAP recipients will be without social-distancing grocery options; and many delivery drivers are paid too little to afford food without SNAP

 

Sacramento, CA – The United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Western States Council and the Western Center on Law & Poverty applaud California’s Department of Social Services (DSS) to be the first state to achieve federal government approval for an emergency request to expand a pilot program permitting Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) recipients to purchase grocery and food delivery online. This option will be available for SNAP, known as CalFresh in California, beginning April 28th.

The COVID-19 crisis has exacerbated existing issues around access to food and other basic necessities. While this new option will help some families living in poverty access food while abiding by federal, state and local emergency orders to shelter in place during the pandemic, there are only two approved retailers – Amazon and Walmart. What’s more, both retailers have established a minimum benefit threshold for purchase of $35 and are charging delivery fees, so it will not offer solutions for everyone.

Since last week’s approval for California, other states have also received approval for SNAP recipients to make purchases online: Arizona, Florida, Idaho, Kentucky, Missouri, North Carolina, Texas, West Virginia, and the District of Columbia. Pilot programs began last year in Alabama, Iowa, Nebraska, New York, Oregon, and Washington State.

According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), even though not all states and only a couple of retailers will be able to participate in the online purchase pilot, they recommend states and retailers not in the pilot utilize other options already available to retailers hoping to serve their customers in ways that support safe social distancing policies, such as “Pay at Pick-up” (also known as “Click and Collect”), where SNAP cardholders can shop online and then pay for their purchase using their EBT card at pick-up. In a statement issued today, USDA says, “Grocery pickup is already an option that these retailers offer beyond SNAP so they are already thinking through how they can provide a safe environment to do so with the growing concerns around social distancing.”

UFCW and Western Center continue to push for expansion of the program beyond Amazon and Walmart and their third-party grocery delivery, and are requesting that other retailers in California’s grocery industry consider “click and collect” options for curbside pick-up and home delivery.

“Allowing CalFresh participants to use their benefit to purchase food online is a positive step toward reducing the unequal access to food and safety during the pandemic,” said Jessica Bartholow, policy advocate, Western Center on Law & Poverty. “However, we can’t stop there. We have one of the most inclusive EBT systems in the country and we shouldn’t stop working on this until we have expanded online purchase and click-and-collect options are available to all current recipients through all participating retailers. If we don’t get more vendors participating in the online purchasing and ordering options during the pandemic, the result could be more food deserts in communities that desperately need greater access.”

CalFresh provides monthly benefits to assist low-income households in purchasing the food they need to maintain adequate nutrition. A single person is eligible for CalFresh if they make $2,024 a month, which is less than what a $13 an hour job pays for 40 hours a week – $2,080. As companies rely on essential delivery workers to prevent hunger and the spread of COVID-19, we encourage them to consider appreciation pay, and wages that would prevent workers from having to rely on safety-net programs.

“It will be a shame if this program, intended to expand options for communities in need, has the effect of eliminating good union jobs and directing more dollars into the pockets of CEOs at Walmart and Amazon. These giant corporations pay wages so low that many of their own workers qualify for Cal-Fresh and would face hunger without these benefits,” said Andrea Zinder, president, UFCW Western States Council and UFCW Local 324. “Expanding the pilot program to include companies that pay their employees living wages and promote workers’ rights and preventing participating companies from contracting with third party distributors is necessary to prevent the loss of good paying jobs with benefits. This also ensures CalFresh recipients are not held responsible for spoiled or damaged food because if a food delivery goes bad, they would not be able to have those benefits refunded to them.”

As local, state, and federal governments work quickly to address needs related to the pandemic in real time, we must be vigilant that the solutions proposed now do not cause more damage in the future. Opening the online purchase pilot program to more vendors and supporting them to establish “click and collect” options for curbside pick-up and home delivery will create the kind of competition and opportunity for fair wages necessary for communities to be well in the current economic climate.

CONTACT:

UFCW Western States Council: Jenna Thompson, 949.246.1620, jenna[at]paschalroth.com

Western Center on Law and Poverty: Jessica Bartholow, 916.400.1948, jbartholow[at]wclp.org

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The United Food and Commercial Workers Western States Council is the regional coordinating body of 11 UFCW local unions representing over 200,000 workers in California, Arizona, Nevada, and Utah. The Council is a part of the 1.2 million member strong UFCW International Union. UFCW members are standing together to improve the lives of workers, families, and communities.

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 low-income Californians. 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.