While a series of storms unseen in decades brought much-needed rain this past month to the Los Angeles area, a different set of storms, brewing for years, is impacting the region’s large population of people whose income isn’t sufficient for the unbelievably high costs of living here. It’s a storm that will hit its peak in April and bring hunger, pain, and an economic slowdown.
After March of this year, the emergency allotments added by the federal government to the accounts of participants in CalFresh (the federal SNAP or Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) will be terminated. Most of the country has already seen the end of these benefits. California is one
of a few states that appealed for a waiver to continue them. But these benefits added due to the pandemic will be finished countrywide in March.
For the average household receiving CalFresh, there will be a loss of $82 of monthly benefits to purchase food. However, some households, particularly one-person households with a senior or disabled occupant, will see drops as drastic as $258. Statewide, half a billion dollars per month will be collectively lost by the lowest income and most vulnerable populations. This situation has been described as the “CalFresh Cliff” or “Hunger Cliff”.
Worse, this is coming at a time when inflation of food prices has already diluted the value of CalFresh benefits. The loss of half a billion dollars monthly to the California economy will wreak havoc on the retail food industry and possibly lead to layoffs and even higher food prices or store closures in food insecure areas, forcing people to travel farther to buy food. People with disabilities or without cars will struggle to get what they need in addition to being able to purchase less of it. Families who need to feed into their children may have to dip into their rent funds, at a time when homelessness has caused cities, counties and the state to declare an emergency, and at a time when renter protections have just barely been extended for a few more months. More evictions are on the horizon.
Around the corner lurks the pending merger of Kroger and Albertsons’ major grocery chains, itself a possible harbinger to unemployment, store closures and price hikes. And farther down the road, despite the blessings of the recent rains, California is squabbling with the other states who rely on the drought-ravaged Colorado River, which supplies the Imperial Valley growers who produce most of the nation’s fruits and vegetables. The federal government has ordered the seven states that use the river to figure out a plan for how each of them will reduce their usage to save the river from dropping to
“dangerously low levels” (https://www.msn.com/en-us/news/politics/colorado-river-states-still- fractured-over-water-cuts/ar-AA16UrMj ).
With such an array of forces against us, how can those who advocate for food security take the initiative to prevent unprecedented suffering?
Traditionally California anti-hunger advocates have done an excellent job of educating state legislators about the consequences of hunger, and in the past three years, with surprisingly high state budget surpluses, have been able to improve conditions, particularly for SSI recipients in the state, who are
seniors, blind or persons with disabilities. But nearly four million Californians will be impacted by the sharp reduction in benefits this March.
The first line of defense is to approach the federal government to see if the benefits can be maintained, but this is highly unlikely as they did not respond to such appeals at the end of 2022. The House is now controlled by the Republican Party, which is interested in even further cuts to the SNAP program.
Barring that, we are asking the state to provide, from state resources, funding to at least partially compensate for the loss of food assistance, even for a few months. This would not be likely to happen when it’s needed, in April. However, even if it doesn’t happen until August after the state
budget it approved, it could ameliorate the situation at least temporarily to help families and vulnerable residents adjust to a new reality.
A second proposal addresses the issue of the small amount of benefits that many single-person households receive. The minimum benefit allowed by the federal government for one-person households who barely qualify for CalFresh is $23 per month. This is an insult and doesn’t even make the
cut as a “supplement”. Advocates asked state legislators to consider adding $27 per month from state
coffers to raise this minimum to a more useful $50 per month, and state Senator Caroline Menjivar
responded by authoring SB 600 to do precisely that.
There are several other state bills that can partially compensate for the loss of benefits. Many of these
proposals have the advantage in that they’ve already been funded by the state and proven to be
valuable. The California Nutrition Incentives Program, one of the funding sources for Market Match,
should be funded by the legislature at $36 million for a period beginning at the end of 2024. Market
Match doubles the value of CalFresh used up to $15 per visit, for fruits and vegetables, at participating
farmers markets. A person receiving $50 per month in CalFresh could stretch that to $100 worth of
produce using Market Match. A similar pilot program that would extend that bonus to grocery stores as
well as farmers markets is beginning this spring, already funded by the state. Expansion of this pilot is on
the state anti-hunger agenda.
The addition of state funding for purchases of drinking water by CalFresh recipients can also help stretch
the CalFresh dollar and address a crisis occurring in many parts of the state. A measure for the state to
get a waiver from the federal government to allow the purchase of hot foods with CalFresh, the
archetypal example being the rotisserie chickens in grocery stores, can expand the options for those
with disabilities who cannot cook, or who lack a place to cook such as a person who is unhoused.
The Food4All program, signed into law by the governor, expands CalFresh to undocumented persons
over 55, the first time aid has been extended to this population. We will be fighting to expand this to
everyone who is income-eligible regardless of age, although it will help immensely to increase the
benefits provided as well as expand the pool of persons who can be helped.
Boosting SSI recipients’ monthly checks enough to hit the poverty level will add more purchasing power
for 1. 3 million senior, blind and disabled state residents. They could also benefit from the legislature
approving a restoration of the Special Circumstances program, which provides funds for one-time large
expenses necessary due to unforeseen crises, such as a moving deposit, a new refrigerator or stove to
repair a broken one.
Families with children 5 and under can enroll in the WIC program, which provides food vouchers for
nutritious items that are getting more expensive including eggs, milk, and protein-rich foods.
Finally, many families will have at least the solace of knowing that their children in school, regardless of
income , will be able to benefit from free breakfast and lunch as a result of state legislation from the last
two years, and the state can also maintain its funding for the emergency food system to keep the food
banks supplied during a time of increasing demand.
This all sounds great on paper, but you may rightfully ask, what are the odds of getting the state to put
forth any additional funding to help people, regardless of their state of misery and suffering, when the
state budget is projected to have a deficit in the billions of dollars this year?
The answer lies in the fact that putting money into the CalFresh program is more of an investment than
an expense. The program acts as a fiscal stimulus: it exhibits what is called an “economic multiplier”
effect . According to the US Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service:
Not only do SNAP benefits support a household’s food purchasing needs, benefits also augment the
incomes and spending of others (such as farmers, retailers, food processors, and food distributors, as
well as their employees); this, in turn, has ripple effects for other parties…. SNAP participation and
benefits can automatically expand when the economy weakens and contract when it strengthens. ERS
research has estimated a multiplier of SNAP benefits on Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of 1.54; that is, an
increase of $1 billion in SNAP benefits in a slowing economy increases GDP by $1.54 billion and supports
13,560 additional jobs, including nearly 500 agricultural jobs (farming, forestry, fishing, and hunting)
Put another way, every dollar of SNAP results in more than a dollar and a half increase in economic
From this perspective, the State should implement CalFresh augmentation through all of the above
suggested legislative proposals, as they would alleviate suffering, help families keep current with their
rent and other bills (especially as gas prices have begun rising again), and support California retail
businesses and farmers specifically, for unlike other states California is a food supplier to the entire
country. We can support our local farmers via the farmers markets, and keep our agricultural industry
going as it in turn sends food out to the rest of the U.S.
The County can get in on the act too as it already has through its own provision of supplemental funding
for Market Match, and some other programs paid for with American Rescue Plan dollars. Advocacy will
be needed to maintain this funding, which is a relatively small share of the County budget, but
represents a tremendous resource for the food that’s made available as a result.
Beyond direct food programs though, all Californians and especially those who are hungry can survive
the high cost of living through the construction of more affordable housing, renter protection measures
and helping to get unhoused folks into decent living conditions. If you’re unhoused you cannot save
money on food because you have nowhere to store or cook it; if you are housed but spending over 50%
of your income on rent, you don’t have sufficient money for food. Housing costs contribute more than
any other factor, for most people, to hunger and food insecurity. The state, County and local
governments can all prioritize housing and work for creative solutions to both homelessness and the
crisis of living on the verge of eviction.
There is a lot of work to do but the most important thing is to not wait, to pick up the phone or shoot off
an email, to educate ourselves to what possible solutions are and coalesce with others working on them.
Hunger Action LA will play its role in this process and is ready to respond if you would like to get
involved. Please email [email protected] and let’s get started!