Nearly 3 million California households will stop receiving additional federal food benefits, granted during the COVID-19 pandemic, in what will undoubtedly be yet another squeeze on the budgets of many people still struggling with the rising cost of living.
Starting in March 2020, low-income Californians saw an increase in benefits from CalFresh, the state’s version of the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program formerly known as food stamps. But that emergency relief ends this month because Congress voted to end the additional benefits as part of the federal spending plan.
Now, the pressure is on Gov. Gavin Newsom and state lawmakers to fill the gaps as experts warn of worsening food insecurity and food banks are scrambling to prepare for an influx of new clients.
The average CalFresh recipient is expected to lose $82 a month, and the average household about $200 a month. The decline will be most significant for older Californians, with monthly benefits projected to drop in some cases from $281 to $23.
Delia Priscilla Ortega Darden stood in line at the South Sacramento Interfaith Partnership food bank on Wednesday in 48-degree, windy weather to pick up free food after running out of her CalFresh benefits a few days ago.
Ortega Darden, 64, says he lives in his car after being unable to continue working due to health problems generated by multiple sclerosis. She uses local food banks to make ends meet, but CalFresh benefits – which can be used to buy fresh fruits and vegetables – are crucial to her health, she said. He uses a walker and says a better diet has helped with leg muscle cramps.
Like nearly 5 million other Californians enrolled in the program, she will suffer a reduction of at least $95 in her benefits because of the end of emergency federal allotments. That means she will have to rely more on food banks and places like Dollar Tree, where she often buys cheap food like bologna to get by, she said.
“My whole health has improved because of it,” Ortega Darden said of CalFresh.
While New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy, a Democrat, signed a bill last month to increase the state’s minimum SNAP benefits in light of the federal cut, Newsom has discouraged any spending promises as the state faces a $22.5 billion budget shortfall.
Sen. Caroline Menjivar (D-San Fernando Valley) has introduced legislation that would more than double California’s minimum monthly CalFresh benefit from $23 to $50. In New Jersey, the minimum has risen to $95.
The legislation would be costly for the state; more than $500 million a month. But Menjivar said curbing food insecurity is a preventative measure that ultimately saves the state costs exacerbated by poverty, including costs associated with the homeless crisis.
Although inflation has declined, California remains one of the most expensive places in the country to live. Menjivar said Newsom and the Legislature should keep that in mind when it comes to supporting the state’s safety net programs.
“It solves a lot of things and can prevent a lot of different things. It’s about making sure our most vulnerable families don’t fall further into poverty,” he said. “What can you afford right now on $23 a month?”
Newsom’s proposed state budget in January did not reflect the impact of the Consolidated Appropriations Act passed by Congress. Changes to the budget are expected in May. The governor, however, has so far urged caution regarding ongoing spending commitments.
“At this point in the process, we’re not going to make any kind of commitment of additional state funding for any program until we have a clearer picture of what the fiscal picture looks like,” said H.D. Palmer, a spokesman for Newsom’s Department of Finance.
The California Department of Social Services, which has been warning of the end of benefits for months, pointed to food banks as a solution, saying they are working to be “as prepared as possible for a possible increase in demand.”
But that’s not enough, said Stacia Hill Levenfeld, CEO of the California Association of Food Banks, who called the timing “catastrophic.” The loss of pandemic food benefits, plus the eventual expiration of electronic benefit transfer cards for low-income children, means a 30% loss for the state’s food safety net, she said.
“There is no way food banks alone can fill the gap,” Hill Levenfeld said.
Last year, nearly 1 in 4 Los Angeles County residents, about 800,000 households, experienced food insecurity, according to a report released by USC’s Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.
“The expiration of emergency aid to the CalFresh program, while inflation and food costs remain high, could push low-income Angelenos to the precipice of hunger,” said Kayla de la Haye, associate professor of population and public health sciences at USC Dornsife.
On Tuesday, Newsom officially ended the COVID-19 state of emergency in California. The end of COVID-19 era benefits for low-income families could lead to more attempts at legislation to expand the social safety net.
On Monday, Assemblymember Miguel Santiago (D-Los Angeles) introduced a bill to extend a child tax credit to more low-income families, pointing to food and rent costs and the need for “inflation relief.”
Andrew Cheyne, managing director of public policy for GRACE, an anti-poverty organization said CalFresh allocations have long been inadequate. Now, people who have grown accustomed to years of benefit increases will struggle.
“It’s really unimaginable to think of households who will go to the grocery store expecting to have money in their account and not have what they need to buy food,” he said. “You look at the level of rising food costs in the last year, not to mention the rising cost of rent, and you know that people were really relying on that money.”