State of Hunger 

The number of people who struggle to put food on the table rose dramatically during the Great Recession, but not everyone who needs help is getting it.

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But while there are many success stories associated with the country's federally-funded anti-hunger programs, the states responsible for administering these benefits vary tremendously in how they enroll people, and how they access the federal dollars. And on this front, the Golden State does very badly. Despite years of efforts only about half of eligible Californians receive the benefits. In many counties, that number is actually far below 50 percent.

Analysts blame the low enrollment percentage on an array of factors: First among these was that, until a recent reform (Assembly Bill 6 kicked in this January 1), California was one of only three states to fingerprint food-stamp applicants, placing both a stigma and a fear of law enforcement and immigration authorities in the way of access to the program.

That requirement was changed, in a rare display of legislative bipartisanship in Sacramento, after years of prodding by USDA officials responsible for administering food stamps under the Obama administration. Both in Washington DC and at the department's regional offices in Oakland, USDA personnel held numerous meetings with state officials, sent out letters to key legislators, and otherwise made it clear that they wanted to see reform.

At the same time, AB 6 also set in place a timeline for ending, over the next two years, several other bureaucratic obstacles to easy enrollment. Currently, California mandates that recipients apply for re-enrollment four times a year, subjecting them to a cumbersome means test that frequently deters applicants; AB 6 reduces the re-applications to twice a year. Also, currently the state insists that applicants apply, in person, at food-stamp offices, which produces a strong disincentive for the working poor to apply. After all, if applying means turning up during work hours and thus losing hourly wages, or even forfeiting a job, why bother to apply? AB 6 allows for telephone interviews and online applications.

At the same time, the federal Affordable Care Act gives the newly created state health insurance exchanges boards the option of setting up systems that would automatically enroll into the food stamp program applicants who successfully enroll in Medicaid. California's board is likely to go for this option. The rationale is that a dollar spent on helping people eat well saves many dollars in health costs down the road.

Finally, the passage of AB 69 by Assemblyman Jim Beall, a South Bay Democrat, will also soon allow low-income elderly residents to access food stamps more easily when they enroll in Social Security, in an attempt to end a pattern of extraordinarily low CalFresh participation amongst this portion of the population.

Hunger advocates hope that the effect of this series of changes will be dramatically increased enrollment levels in CalFresh over the next few years, and a corresponding decrease in levels of food insecurity in California.


In addition to the state changing the ways in which residents can access food stamps, many localities are also getting creative on the nutrition front. Programs such as Veggie Vouchers, funded by local food networks and foundations, are pushing recipients to eat healthier foods, leveraging their federal food stamps with matching funds for clients to spend on fruits and vegetables in select farmers' markets around the state.

"If you are consuming your fruits and vegetables on a daily basis, it'll prevent you from getting sick," explained Maribel Diaz, a CalFresh recipient since she lost her job, and currently a part-time worker with Hunger Action Los Angeles. "It's very important to have access to fruits and vegetables."

More broadly on the public health front, many of the state's large food banks are moving away from a reliance on USDA surplus and grocery store contributions — mainly carbohydrates and canned goods — and toward privately donated and bought fruits and vegetables. Some, like the Sacramento Food Bank, are also inaugurating large demonstration farms from which their clients can harvest produce.

This is, nutritional specialists have long argued, a critical public health ingredient in the food equations of the moment, given the challenges of low-income obesity, high blood pressure, and diabetes; and given the large number of regions that have significant shortages in the numbers of stores offering fresh produce at affordable prices. "Access to fresh food via either grocery store or farmers' market — a large portion of the low income population don't have access," explained Blake Young.

In addition to the veggie voucher program, which piggybacks off of CalFresh, local school districts with endemic poverty rates are experimenting with Breakfast in the Classrooms, seeking to raise breakfast enrollment levels to the same levels as those of free lunch programs. Again, the assumption is that hungry kids — who might not be able to get to school early enough to get breakfast in the cafeteria before classes begin — can't learn to their full potential, whereas well-fed kids are better able to concentrate on their academic responsibilities, thus allowing them to use education to break cycles of poverty.

The family of eighteen-year-old high school senior Uriel R., who attends a school in the East Los Angeles suburb of Pomona, was recently evicted from its home. As a result, the large family — siblings, parents, and grandparents — was split up; his sisters now live elsewhere. Uriel lives in a small apartment with his mother, who finds occasional work cleaning homes, and who routinely struggles to feed her family. The student says, "My mom only cooks on Monday, so I expect a hot meal on Mondays. Sometimes it's just eggs and cheese. From Tuesdays all the way to Sunday we don't have hot meals; we just eat whatever's left in the fridge."

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