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I lost track of how many times my mother would say to my father, “No volvimos a calificar para estampillas. ¿Como la vamos a hacer?” [We didn’t qualify for food stamps again. How are we going to get by?]. I remember the worry in her voice.  These echoing words remind me of the stories of too many Latinx immigrant families suffering from hunger and food insecurity as they try to stretch a 2-day food supply an entire week.  Food is vital for human existence. Unfortunately, my family is only one among the 42 million Americans struggling to secure food for themselves and their families during the COVID-19 pandemic.

While the United States ranks as one of the wealthiest nations, millions of children and families face hunger and food insecurity each day. Whereas hunger is commonly understood as a momentary physical drive between meals, food insecurity refers to not having the financial resources to access food. Latinx and Black Americans are disproportionately impacted. In 2019, 15.6% of Latinx households and 19.1% of Black households faced food insecurity. 

Before the pandemic, about one in five Latinx children experienced food insecurity.  But the pandemic has exacerbated their food insecurity. Almost one of every two Latinx households are currently experiencing food insecurity 

Taking a closer look at OC, more than 450,000 residents face hunger each month. Although nearly 50% of all public school children have access to reduced or free school lunches, one in six children is still at risk of experiencing hunger. In 2019, 8.7% of OC families lived in poverty, whereas 16.6% of Latinx families had the highest poverty rate compared to other racial/ethnic groups. While the cost of living continues to increase in OC and across the nation, many families living in poverty cannot afford basic necessities, including food. 

Working at Code for America (CfA) in SF, I see the effects of hunger every day.  CfA is a non-profit organization that partners with the California Department of Social Services to facilitate and expand CalFresh (SNAP or food stamp) benefits accessibility through digital services across 58 counties. I typically respond to 200-300 live chat, short message service (SMS), and email messages per day; CalFresh applicants with questions about food resources. 

I’ve noticed alarming trends and patterns, especially among Latinx applicants. Many express fear of continuing their CalFresh application process because they were misinformed about the immigration eligibility requirements or experienced discrimination from CalFresh county caseworkers. Others are concerned that applying for CalFresh will make them ineligible to receive other public assistance benefits. Notably, U.S. citizen children of undocumented parents are eligible to receive CalFresh benefits, but many parents decide to withdraw their application for fear of becoming a “public charge,” despite the Biden Administration’s termination of the public charge rule. 

With half of Latinx households facing food insecurity, and misunderstandings about food stamp eligibility rampant, what can we do? 

Federal policies that eliminate immigration eligibility restrictions would be helpful. Currently, there is a five-year waiting period, which prevents federally qualified immigrants from accessing CalFresh benefits until they have resided in the United States for at least five years. Local governments and communities can also invest in hiring promotoras—bilingual lay health workers—to provide culturally relevant and responsive information and education to their Latinx communities about CalFresh benefits, the application process, and eligibility. Most importantly, CalFresh county caseworkers should be required to take cultural humility training to ensure that they become aware of their own biases, recognize the historical and political realities of the diverse populations they serve, and understand that learning other’s intersecting identities is a lifelong process. 

Importantly, Orange County residents are urged to write, email, and speak directly with their state government representatives to pass California Assembly Bill 221 (AB 221), which will grant emergency food assistance to low-income California residents—regardless of their immigration status—during a state of emergency or public health crisis (e.g., COVID-19 pandemic). Passing this bill will also alleviate fears and concerns among Latinx immigrants when applying to CalFresh and increase their participation in a program meant to mitigate food insecurity in the Golden State. 

In all, we must make transformative changes to eliminate systemic barriers so that Latinx families like my own do not encounter hunger and food insecurity.  I don’t want other children to hear their mother say: “No volvimos a calificar” [We did not qualify again].

Nicole Balbuens lives is Tustin. She is currently working at Code for America (CfA), a non-profit organization that partners with the California Department of Social Services to facilitate and expand CalFresh (SNAP) benefits accessibility through digital services across 58 counties. 

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