Hunger Action LA rallied advocates and low income people to support change in our state’s food assistance systems in 2023. Most of the legislative changes impacted the CalFresh program, which remains the #1 line of defense against hunger for four million in California. Our work together isn’t finished and we have a challenging year ahead, with inflation and state budget shortfalls potentially impacting the ability of food assistance programs to adequately meet the needs of low income workers, families, seniors, and people with disabiities. Here is a recap of some of the highlights of 2023:
Minimum Benefit for CalFresh: After the pandemic benefits ended in the spring of this year, tens of thousands of recipients of CalFresh food benefits found themselves reduced from as high as $281 in benefits per month to the almost useless sum of $23 per month. Advocates from around California hopped into action, with Hunger Action LA co-sponsoring SB 600, which proposed an increase in the CalFresh minimum benefit to $50, using state funding to fill the gap in federal funding. The bill found an ardent champion in author Senator Caroline Menjivar from the San Fernando Valley. Representing LA, Frank Tamborello and SSI recipient Trinidad Luna flew to Sacramento to testify at the Senate Human Services Committee hearing, where even Republican Senator Rosilicie Ochoa-Bogh signed on as co-author of the bill making it a rare bipartisan endeavor. In the quirky ways of state politics, the bill itself was put on ice for the next legislative session, but $15 million was allocated to begin the process of increasing the minimum benefit. While this sum is not high enough to raise every recipient to a $50 minimum, it is a start in improving the situation. It should be noted that other states have increased their minimum benefit, including New Jersey.
Reimbursement of Skimmed EBT CalFresh Benefits: Advocates succeeded in winning $42.9 million for administering and automating California’s plan to restore stolen benefits. Hunger Action LA was a plaintiff in a case several years ago (Court of Appeal decision in Esther Ortega et al., v. Kimberley Johnson, et al.) that the state was obligated to restore stolen benefits.
Food 4 All: HALA was proud to be part of the vast coalition working for Food 4 All to allow undocumented persons access to CalFresh. HALA arranged for client testimony at press conferences and in social media. The state budget allotted $40 million for an accelerated implementation of California Food Assistance Program (CFAP) benefits to begin issuance in October 2025 instead of January 2027. The first eligible group will be persons 55 and older, meaning the campaign must continue to bring in all age groups.
Access to Hot Food for CalFresh recipients: The inconsistent rules of federal programs often leave a void in access to survival resources for those seeking to stay afloat in the tough economy. A case in point is the SNAP program (CalFresh here): while we have a program that allows food benefits on the card to be used at restaurants by persons who are senior, disabled, or unhoused, you still can’t use CalFresh to buy prepared foods that are in grocery stores---such as the ubiquitous roasted chicken dinners, ideal for someone who has no cooking facilities but still ineligible for purchase by CalFresh. Hunger Action LA co-sponsored AB 712, authored by LA Assemblymember Wendy Carrillo, which would allow purchase of hot or prepared food from grocery stores with CalFresh for all recipients. The bill was signed into law by the Governor. However, it still hinges on acquiring a waiver from the federal government to be implemented.
SSI/SSP: Hunger Action LA continued it’s leadership role among SSI recipients and as part of the CA4SSI Coalition, winning a grant increase of 8.6%, effective January 2024 for California’s 1.5 million senior, disabled and blind persons depending on Supplemental Security Income (SSI.)
In addition to the above, HALA as part of the state-wide coalition California Hunger Action Coalition (CHAC) won:
Support for emergency food in California food banks
Funding to increase nutritional quality of school meals
$35 million in California Nutrition Incentive Program (CNIP) funding which supports the Market Match program
Federal changes impact CalFresh recipients over age 50: As part of a budget deal earlier this year to avoid federal government default, President Biden agreed to Republican demands to increase the age to 55 at which recipients of SNAP (CalFresh here) are required to be working 20 hours per week as a condition of receiving benefits. After three months of non-compliance, the person then becomes ineligible for nearly three years. The rule applies to people with no disabilities and no dependents (hence the awful sounding and de-humanizing acronym ABAWD or Able Bodied Adult Without Dependents.)
This rule existed since the 1996 “Contract With America” welfare reform package constructed by Newt Gingrich (and the rule in particular by Ohio past representative and governor John Kasich.) It originally applied to recipients aged 18 to 50, and the 20 hours work could be accomplished also through “approved work and training programs”. Over the years waivers were applied and used by the states, and everyone was exempted from the rule during the pandemic.
The rule is being rolled out in phases, with persons age 52 impacted beginning Oct 2023, then those age 53 or 54 beginning Oct 2024. There are some new exemptions for veterans and for unhoused persons, but less than half those impacted are in those two groups.
Hunger Action LA will seek to eliminate this rule (which may be around till at least 2030) and in the meantime explore ways to mitigate the damage, which will hurt people at the age at which finding a job becomes even more difficult.
Every five years (with delays having become a common occurrence), Congress passes an omnibus piece of legislation called the Farm Bill, about half of which deals with agricultural subsidies, crop insurance and similar items dealing with our country’s agriculture, and about half of which is the SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as Food Stamps and now CalFresh here in California) . This is an opportunity for proponents of food assistance to push for beneficial things to the program, while opponents seek to make cuts.
Why are the two items linked? Partially, it’s because in theory SNAP users are purchasing American agricultural products, therefore the SNAP program is a piece of the funding for American farmers. It’s also what’s politically termed a “log roll” or “you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours”; rural representatives who wanted farm payments for their constituents agreed to support urban representatives’ need for food assistance for their constituents, and vice versa. This is less the case now, as even many conservative representatives often oppose ag subsidies (unless it’s their state’s primary money-making crop that’s involved.)
By the way, in California we have the opportunity to support CalFresh users purchasing California grown products---that’s a major part of what Market Match is about.
What are some major Farm Bill issues: In spite of the high political tensions dominating public conversation in the USA right now, there are some surprisingly bipartisan initiatives in the Farm Bill this year:
GusNIP: This program is named for Gus Schumacher, the pioneer of Market Match-type programs all over the country, and has become a major primary funding source for the program. These are programs that provide bonus dollars when participants use SNAP benefits to purchase fruits and vegetables. Currently organizations with Market Match type programs (known by a multitude of different names depending on your state) are required to “match” the funding they receive by 50%. Some states act as the matching funder for the program. In California, the state matches (and beyond) the federal funding from GusNIP with its own CNIP (California Nutrition Incentive Program). This is due to advocacy over the past decade led by the Ecology Center and with participation from Hunger Action LA and dozens of other California groups.
Bipartisan proposals in the Farm Bill would reduce the matching requirements to only 20%, allowing many more agencies and states around the country to begin providing bonus dollars to SNAP users at farmers markets and in fact at other locations including supermarkets and grocery stores.
SNAP Nutrition Security Act: New Jersey Democratic Senator Cory Booker and Florida Republican Senator Marco Rubio have introduced a bill that would require the US Department of Agriculture to turn over data on how the billions of SNAP dollars are being spent. While this bill has notable endorsers such as the American Heart Association, Hunger Free America and the Center for Black Health and Equity, there is concern that the “end game” is to next restrict what can be purchased with SNAP with an aid to eliminating “junk food” purchases. While it's laudable to want everyone to eat healthy, the problem in many low income areas in the country that healthy food is not available. How would junk food be defined and how would retail grocers react to having to separate different foods at the cash register? There’s also the issue of the constant stigmatization of food assistance recipients as being uneducated or unconcerned with health. Hunger Action LA prefers positive methods of making healthy food more affordable---such as Market Match---or, processes that disincentivize all of us from purchasing unhealthy products, not just low income people. A soda tax for example is something everyone would have to pay, not singling out poor people for punishment. It should be noted that Booker and Rubio’s SNAP Nutrition Security Act does not in itself call for restriction on what can be bought, but it’s clear that it’s ultimate goal is a path to such restrictions.
State Level: Special Circumstances Program
A stove and a refrigerator contribute enormously to one’s ability to economize and make the most of one’s food purchasing resources, whether that’s cash or CalFresh. Many of our most vulnerable residents in California, including the 1.5 million blind, senior and/or disabled recipients of SSI, find themselves in a real bind if their stove or refrigerator breaks down. From the 1970s until 2002, there was a program called Special Circumstances in which SSI recipients (and also, recipients of In-Home Supportive Services), funded by the state, which would pay for repair or replacement of these essential appliances. Funding ceased over twenty years ago.
Hunger Action LA and its allies in the CA4SSI Coalition will be advocating to reinstate this program in 2024. In addition to stoves and refrigerators, we seek to add air conditioning to the list and in fact prioritize it as global heating is resulting in more deaths in our elderly and disabled population.