Hunger pains loom over regions like Orange County and all over
California’s food safety net — food assistance sources that in 2021 provided about 9.2 billion meals to residents statewide – is about to face a 30% cut with the disappearance of two public programs that started in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The federal Pandemic-EBT program, food benefits provided on an electronic benefit transfer card for school aged children which kicked off during the pandemic, is expected to end following the termination of the federal public health emergency on May 11.
And the increased allocation of CalFresh food stamp money given to millions of low-income families because of COVID for the past three years is going to dry up by the end of the month after Congress passed the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2023.
[Read: Millions of Californians Are About to Lose COVID Food Benefits; OC Braces for ‘Food Cliff]
The disappearance of both those forms of assistance this year is leaving food bank leaders across the state, who upped their efforts to feed people amid the pandemic, and local government leaders at places like Orange County’s Social Services Agency worried of a food cliff as inflation costs soar.
“The end of these emergency allotments and taking this food assistance out of communities, it’s going to hit an already vulnerable population,” said Mike Edmundson, deputy director of the agency’s assistance programs division, in a Tuesday phone interview.
“We’re concerned we know that this has been just critical benefits in our community during this really difficult time.”
The change will mean increased pressure on food banks who are not seeing the same funding levels that came in at the start of the pandemic and are being stretched thin.
Mark Lowry, director of the OC Food Bank said in a phone interview, called the end of the assistance programs a “financial one two punch” for Orange County’s vulnerable families.
“We’ve got nearly 300,000 people they’re going to be affected by these cuts,” Lowry said about the end of the CalFresh emergency allocation impact in OC.
“It might not be a side by side comparison to March of 2020,” he continued. “It will certainly be a major hit to vulnerable families.”
Combined, the increased food stamp benefits and the Pandemic-EBT cards provided over 3 billion meals in 2021 to millions of Californians, according to the California Association of Food Banks.
“The end of emergency allotments is going to be catastrophic for California’s food insecure community members. There’s no way that food banks alone can fill the gap that the end of Emergency Allotments is going to create,” said Stacia Hill Levenfeld, CEO of the California Association of Food Banks, in a press release this month.
“That, coupled with the end of Pandemic EBT, means that California is about to lose more than 30% of its food safety net.”
The End of COVID CalFresh Benefits
Almost 5 million Californians received CalFresh benefits in January, according to the California Department of Social Services.
Now families on CalFresh food stamps will go back to receiving pre-pandemic allocations.
On average, households receiving the benefits will lose $200 a month. For some older adults, benefits will plummet from $281 to $23 with the change, according to the state association of food banks.
Local food bank leaders warn that seniors – a population that is surging in Orange County – will be hit the hardest by the end of CalFresh benefits.
[Read: Orange County Seniors Are Expected to Be Hit Hardest by Incoming Food Cliff]
In Orange County, there were over 304,000 residents receiving food stamp benefits in January, according to data from the state department of social services.
The county has a population of about 3.2 million residents, according to census data.
End of Pandemic-EBT For Kids
Food benefits known as Pandemic-EBT for school-aged children and young kids, who would have gotten free or discounted lunches at school but lost access because of COVID school closures, are also disappearing at the end of the school year in May.
In the 2020-21 school year, the program helped feed about 4.2 million kids in California with over $6.1 billion worth of benefits, according to the California Association of Food Banks.
Data on the program from the State Department of Social Services shows over 268,000 kids in Orange County were eligible for the program in the 2020-21 school year. According to the County Social Service Agency, 84% of those kids received a card that round.
Edmundson said there are other resources that can help ensure these kids don’t go hungry.
One he pointed to was the state’s universal meals program, the first in the country, that provides kids that participate in it breakfast and lunch.
Will Legislators Help Keep Food on the Table?
Even with the boost of CalFresh COVID allotments and Pandemic-EBT, 20% of Californians faced food insecurity in 2021, according to a study by Northwestern University.
Food bank leaders worry that with the changes that percentage will only shoot up.
They’re calling on Gov. Gavin Newsom and state legislators to act.
Legislators are introducing bills to try and mitigate the crisis.
State Senator Caroline Menjivar introduced Senate Bill 600 in February that would increase the $23 minimum CalFresh recipients receive to $50.
Last month, State Senator Nancy Skinner also introduced Senate Bill 348 that would add $80 more in food benefits to students in the summer.
Lowry said there are layers of potential support – private philanthropy, County government, the state and the federal government – all of whom helped out at the beginning of the pandemic.
“That’s the only place where help comes from. That’s where food comes from. That’s where money to purchase food comes from,” he said.
Meanwhile, the County’s social services agency, partnering up with the local food banks, are on a mission to get anyone eligible for food stamps enrolled in the CalFresh program.
“CalFresh is just one way to address hunger in Orange County. While it won’t be easy to fill the void left by the expiration of Emergency Allotments, we are working closely with partners like the OC Hunger Alliance, OC Health Care Agency and our local school districts to help children get the nutrition they need to thrive,” said An Tran, Director of the agency, in a statement sent Wednesday.
Edmundson said that the program’s enrollment was lower than they’d like to see but has gone up higher since the start of the pandemic following increased outreach efforts by the agency and its partners.
“We realized the best way to decrease food insecurity and increase access to food was to get everybody who’s eligible for CalFresh on the program,” he said. “By getting all those individuals on CalFresh, that was going to supplement them far more than what the food banks could do across the county.”
He said even so the end of the two assistance programs will put a substantial strain on the food banks.
The agency is trying to alleviate that pressure by educating residents on other assistance programs that can support them by reducing other expenses like gas or rental assistance.
They’re also pointing people to 211 OC for resources.
“We really want to make sure that those that are eligible for our benefits are receiving them and individuals in Orange County have access to food,” Edmundson said.
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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