With a fresh produce void in some neighborhoods and a french fry overabundance in others, some Santa Ana residents have a tough time finding healthy food.
An effort to meet these daily needs has the town’s nutrition moving more fluidly, and beyond the brick-and-mortar – even before COVID-19 brought more people to the brink of food insecurity – through community gardens and neighborhood produce trucks.
But clearing one set of hurdles only brings the next, and now some of Orange County’s largest food bank leaders fear that inflated food costs and an upcoming sunset of emergency food stamp enhancements has the road caving ahead into a steep “food cliff.”
Residents, who are already struggling, are expecting a steep drop in their checks come at the end of march, with the federal expiration of enhanced emergency allotments authorized in response to the pandemic – extra money for food these families received for almost three years.
And millions of Californians up and down the state are expected to lose those increased benefits that got them through pandemic job losses and the high inflation costs that followed.
[Read: Millions of Californians Are About to Lose COVID Food Benefits; OC Braces for ‘Food Cliff’]
“We know many are struggling right now,” said Jamie Cargo, a spokesperson for the OC Social Services Agency in an email Tuesday.
“We know the cost to heat homes has gone up recently. We know rents are high. All those factors together means our already vulnerable populations are going to feel this change more acutely.”
Now the City of Santa Ana’s stepping in, set to spend $500,000 on weekly food distribution across the city over the next year, with two community groups up for a City Council-approved contract on Tuesday to provide poor residents with free food, diapers, and other supplies.
It’s the latest allotment of city funding for community groups’ direct assistance efforts throughout town, sourced from the $128 million federal COVID bailout Santa Ana received for the pandemic, under a spending initiative that came to be known as Revive Santa Ana.
The initiative presented officials with a number of funding avenues to close systemic gaps in town.
Including direct aid.
The pandemic’s effects on Santa Ana have run deep, evidenced by mutual aid efforts like the In’Lakesh Relief Fund, which organized a drive-thru pantry in the throes of contagion.
“We saw a great need for access to affordable groceries or assistance with groceries and lots of local organizations stepped up in the pandemic to provide food and other supplies,” said city spokesperson Paul Eakins in a Thursday phone interview.
The council’s expected vote on Tuesday is only the latest round of community group funding.
Last year, the council designated five different groups to fulfill food distribution in one form or another up through last month.
Those groups were the Delhi Center, the Elks Lodge, Latino Health Access, the United Across Borders Foundation and the Madison Park Neighborhood Association which formed a nonprofit.
A total of 132,000 residents got fed over the last year under that initiative, according to Eakins.
“This was the first part of the distributions,” Eakins said. “Some of these are done, some are still working through the end of this month … what we’re bringing to council on Tuesday is the next phase, with new contracts.”
Claudia Keller, CEO of the Second Harvest Food Bank of OC, said in a Wednesday phone interview that efforts like this are absolutely crucial and applauded Santa Ana officials for considering this.
“If you compare this food cliff to the economic shock of COVID, when everyone got laid off and food insecurity spiked then, the government, state and federal, ran in to help people through enhanced benefits and food programs,” she said.
“It is absolutely critical for especially large cities with a large population to do this.”
To run the distribution sites this time around, city staff proposed contracts with two specific groups.
Up to bat again is the Delhi Center, the community building serving the surrounding Delhi Neighborhood, which also recently agreed to host a satellite library to maintain access throughout the Main Library’s renovations-prompted closure of 2024.
The other group at the top of the list is called the Seva Collective, a Sikh-American community group that runs a drive-thru food pantry at the Raymond A. Villa Fundamental Intermediate School on Chestnut Avenue.
Whether it’s a drive-thru pantry or hot meals on wheels service – “we leave it open-ended as to how they provide the service, because we don’t want to limit them necessarily … most of them are food pantries but wanted to give them flexibility to provide assistance in other ways,” Eakins said.
It comes as more than 302,000 Orange County residents were enrolled in CalFresh food stamps as of December, according to state data, which logged more than 122,000 applications that same month and more than 111,000 approved.
Nearly 10,000 households in Santa Ana are estimated to be on food stamps, with more than 3,600 of them containing seniors, according to American Community Survey estimates from 2021, which also show an average of four people per home and a 12% poverty rate.
A yearly average of 271,381 people, out of the 3.2 million residents in OC, received CalFresh benefits in 2022, said Cargo.
Now households across California are expected to lose on average $261 in increased monthly benefits, with some households and seniors going from $281 in benefits to $23.
Food bank leaders say the impending cuts will result in about a $30 million loss of food spending a month for Orange County’s neediest families – money which would have helped boost local economies and support community markets.
Cargo is encouraging CalFresh recipients to connect with the Social Services Agency to see how they can receive the highest amount of benefits a month.
The agency’s call center can be reached at 800-281-9799 Monday through Friday from 6:30 a.m – 8 p.m. and on Saturday from 7 a.m. – 4:30 p.m.
For other resources, such as food banks, Cargo encourages residents to visit http://Oc.findhelp.com.
Brandon Pho is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member with Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @photherecord.
Hosam Elattar is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member with Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at email@example.com or on Twitter @ElattarHosam.
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