Officials at the County of Orange – along with numerous community nonprofits – are trying to get ahead of a looming drop in two key social safety nets for some of Orange County’s neediest residents: health care and food stamps.
Orange County Supervisor Vicente Sarmiento and the County’s Social Services Agency are partnering up with local nonprofits and government agencies to host a community resource and health fair tomorrow in Santa Ana.
It comes as almost 150,000 residents are expected to lose their health coverage and a looming hunger crisis is expected to hit roughly 300,000 Orange County residents as federal funding dries up at the end of this month.
[Read: Millions of Californians Are About to Lose COVID Food Benefits; OC Braces for ‘Food Cliff]
The fair is taking place at Centennial Park Saturday from 9 a.m to 1 p.m. and will include both a food distribution as well as a diaper giveaway along with booths where residents can learn about resources available to help them navigate the crisis from specialists.
View the flier for the fair here.
The Orange County Social Service Agency will also bring out their Mobile Response Vehicle – a RV retrofitted to be a moving office – to the fair to sign up people for food benefits.
Social Safety Nets Threatened
An Tran, director of the County Social Services Agency, said in a phone interview that the fair is intended to support residents in any way they can as upcoming changes are being made to food benefits and health coverage.
He also said having people on the ground will have a much greater impact for residents than simply sending out flyers about the changes.
“We have with us many partners like food banks, the city themselves and CalOptima, that are going to be able to have a conversation with the community and be able to help give them a linkage or a bridge to some of the services that they need,” Tran said.
Sarmiento said in a phone interview earlier this month the fair is being held to call attention to the end of increased COVID allocation of CalFresh food stamp money – food benefits for low income families – that helped feed about 10% of Orange County residents in the past three years.
[Read: Food Assistance Programs in OC, Across California Are On The Chopping Block]
It isn’t the only reason they’re holding the fair, he said.
The end of the COVID emergency in California is expected to result in a loss of healthcare for about 146,000 OC residents in need.
[Read: End of COVID Emergency Means Loss of Healthcare For Up to 146,000 Poor OC Residents]
Tran said as of January 2023, there were a little over 1 million people receiving Medi-Cal in OC.
The county has a population of about 3.2 million residents, according to census data.
“Everyone considers Orange County to be a rich county and wealthy county, but there are needs here and there are people that need help,” Tran said.
Sarmiento said in April there will be a reevaluation of who is eligible for Medi-Cal.
“The last thing we want is for people and families to go to their clinics and doctors and be denied care because they’re no longer eligible and this be a surprise to them,” he said.
Sarmiento said the district he represents – which covers Santa Ana and parts of Anaheim, Garden Grove, Tustin and Orange – has the highest number of people receiving CalFresh food benefits and that his district has the highest proportion of Medi-Cal recipients.
“We figured this resource fair would be a good opportunity to try to invite as many people as we could and start informing them of these changes that are coming,” Sarmiento said. “Even though it won’t be monetary support that we’ll be able to provide, it’ll be just connecting people with those resources that are still available.”
Tran worries people are going to lose Medi-Cal coverage because they don’t know how to navigate the system.
“Many of these individuals have been protected from discontinuance because of the public health emergency, and they may have forgotten how to navigate or the requirements for them to report certain things,” he said.
Tran said they’re working with the state Department of Health Care Services, as well as community partners like CalOptima to better communicate the changes to residents.
Families Together of Orange County, a community health center, will also be participating.
Parsia Jahanbani, the mobile operations manager for the health center, said in a phone interview this week that they will have an information booth at the fair geared at residents who are either uninsured or underinsured.
“People can learn about the services that Families Together offer. They can get connected to our schedule with the mobile units so they can check out when we’re in the neighborhood and they can come see us or they can get a brochure that explains all the services that we provide at the office,” he said.
The Incoming Food Cliff
Meanwhile, the end of the increased CalFresh benefits will impact around 300,000 OC residents and seniors are expected to be hit hardest by the change.
“Starting at the end of March, people are going to feel a dramatic reduction in CalFresh benefits to the tune of a little bit less than $30 million a month,” Tran said of OC residents.
“And right now, we know that families are struggling, and will feel this pinch even more because of the inflation.”
He adds that not only is the cost of food high, but so is the cost of rent and gas.
Tran said at the fair there will be staff who will be able to communicate with residents in various languages including Spanish to help increase accessibility.
It will also be an opportunity for residents to apply for food benefits.
“We’re also able to print electronic benefit cards, because we’ll roll out our mobile response vehicle,” Tran said.
These types of vans are regularly in use across the county by the agency and in the past have even been used at the Santa Ana riverbed to help homeless people out there.
Tran’s agency has been on a mission to increase enrollment into the CalFresh program for many years – even before his time there.
“We do feel that there are individuals here in Orange County that are eligible or likely eligible to CalFresh programs that aren’t applying,” He said.
Groups that have been on the ground trying to combat food insecurity for years in OC like the OC Hunger Alliance, Latino Health Access, Second Harvest Food Bank, Community Action Partnership OC and United Across Borders Foundation are participating partners at the fair.
Sarmiento said they hope to host a subsequent fair in Anaheim.
“This is going to be one in a series of resource fairs to provide information on both these items,” he said.
“We wanted to start in Santa Ana just because we know it is probably more heavily concentrated with people that receive CalFresh benefits and our MediCal recipients and CalOptima members.”
Hosam Elattar 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 @ElattarHosam.
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