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Western Center stays vigilant to protect assistance for low-income Californians during disaster

This year, Californians have faced an unprecedented number of natural disasters. Wildfires from Southern to Northern California continue to devastate communities, and have left tens of thousands without homes and food security.

Fortunately, low-income Californians experiencing devastation from disaster no longer have to go at it alone. In 2017, Western Center on Law & Poverty, the California Association of Food Banks, and the Jacobs & Cushman San Diego Food Bank sponsored Assembly Bill 607 (Gloria), which was signed by the Governor and has been implemented by the California Department of Social Services. AB 607 was the first ever legislation in California and across the country to require the state and every county to have a disaster plan to prevent hunger among low-income Californians during and following a disaster.

Prior to AB 607, a Presidential major disaster declaration wouldn’t necessarily trigger the state to request disaster food assistance for low-income Californians. The new legislation requires the Department of Social Services to request food assistance for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) recipients each time a disaster declaration is made. Before AB 607, no such protections were in place, so low-income Californians experienced additional hardships acquiring food during disasters.

Stipulations like work requirements, paper verifications and timely reporting requirements for California Work Opportunity and Responsibility to Kids (CalWORKs) program recipients were not required to be waved during times of disaster. That meant people in disaster situations could still be required to prove they were working, verify information with paper documents they didn’t have, or to report a change in address or employment within a short period of time in the midst of devastating loss. AB 607 changed that.

As a continuation of this work, California became the first state to issue a disaster SNAP handbook, which was released in October. Western Center served on the committee responsible for the creation of the handbook and lead advocates in review prior to publication. The handbook provides guidelines for counties on how to implement disaster SNAP, best practices for disaster planning, and general information about the ends and outs of disaster SNAP. Just last week, a letter went out to every California county to ensure they know how to implement disaster SNAP.

In addition to leading advocacy efforts to ensure CalWORKs and SNAP assistance is available during disasters, Western Center is also leading the charge to secure replacement benefits for low-income Californians when power outages or floods destroy food supplies, but the conditions are not bad enough for a declaration of disaster. For example, when hundreds of SNAP beneficiaries lost power in rural northern California earlier this year, Western Center made sure individuals received assistance to replace spoiled food. Western Center not only led the way to make sure programs for replacement benefits were in place, we also tracked down the exact locations of outages from PG&E to ensure that all recipients who needed assistance received it.

For low-income Californians currently experiencing wildfire-related devastation in Butte, Colusa, Glenn, Kern, Los Angeles, Orange, Plumas, Tehama, Santa Barbara, San Bernardino, San Luis Obispo, Sutter, Yuba, and Ventura counties, relief is on its way.

The Department of Social Services (DSS) has requested approval from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) for large-scale replacement of SNAP benefits lost in the fire. They have also requested permission to administer the Disaster SNAP program in December, serving people who are not currently aided through the program with a benefit for a limited time.

Until then, people who are currently aided will benefit from two waivers already received by the USDA. First, the Timely Reporting Waiver will allow households in affected counties to request replacement benefits for SNAP benefits through December 10, 2018 to replace food lost in the Camp and Woolsey Fires. Without the waiver, recipients would have been required to report lost food within a 10-day window. Additionally, The Hot Foods Waiver will allow hot foods to be purchased at SNAP authorized retailers through December 17, 2018. 

For more information on how wildfire victims can access disaster benefits, visit the Disaster CalFresh website, or call the state’s SNAP hotline at 877-847-3663. 

As pleased as we are with the progress made for disaster SNAP in California, there is still more to be done to protect vulnerable Californians during disaster.

Many children in low-incomes families rely on school meals to eat, and when schools are shut down during disasters, those two missing meals can be a tremendous obstacle to their food security. This is also true for pregnant women and families with young children who rely on the California Department of Public Health’s Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program.

Western Center would like schools, school districts and WIC agencies to adopt disaster plans to ensure children still receive meals in the midst of school closures or following a disaster. Other states have developed these types of disaster plans so children don’t go hungry during or after disasters; as these events become California’s new normal, we must encourage California to do the same.

Western Center will continue to lead advocacy efforts for improved preparation and response for disasters, which will ensure relief and resiliency for low-income Californians who are impacted by disaster.