‘It’s going to be devastating’: End of emergency food benefits expected to impact millions of Californians
Some families will see their CalFresh benefits dip to as low as $23 a month.
A gallon of milk, a dozen eggs, a loaf of bread, a pound of chicken: That may be all the groceries some Californians can buy each month with their CalFresh benefits now that emergency federal pandemic funds that boosted food benefits have ended.
The severance comes at a time when Californians are already reeling from inflation and the high cost of groceries, leaving local food bank leaders in fear of a “food cliff” as demand soars and their budgets tighten.
The federal food program, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, received boosts throughout the pandemic as Americans faced furloughs and layoffs and dipped into their savings. But that emergency aid has come to an end, and eligible households will lose at least $95 a month in benefits, with some seeing their benefits dip to as low as $23 a month. Benefits are determined by income and household size.
Nationally, food prices increased by 13.1% between July 2021 and July 2022, according to the Public Policy Institute of California. It estimates that inflation has cut the value of SNAP increases by 76% since 2019.
For one San Jose single mother, the end of the added emergency benefits — which will have its final payout this month — brings worry, stress and a feeling of powerlessness. Her monthly grocery bill had been around $300 — typically what she was receiving in CalFresh benefits with the emergency allotments. Now, her CalFresh benefits are dropping to $38.
Adrianne, 42, who asked to be identified only by her first name, said she recently went back to school, and the emergency allotments during the pandemic have been a lifeline for her and her 7-year-old daughter. She plans to stock up with the final benefits payout but is concerned about whether she’ll be able to rely on a food bank.
“Being a full-time student, taking 15 credits every semester and being a single mom, I really don’t know if I have the time to make it to pick up free food,” she said. “I’m going to have to figure out something.”
Hundreds of thousands of Bay Area families may face similar challenges. In December 2022, roughly 256,000 households were receiving CalFresh benefits in Santa Clara, San Mateo, Alameda and Contra Costa counties, according to the California Department of Social Services. Across California, that number was nearly 3 million.
In Santa Clara and San Mateo counties, the more than 93,000 households receiving CalFresh benefits will lose approximately $16 million per month, according to Second Harvest of Silicon Valley — one of the largest food banks in the country.
As families lose the much-needed emergency benefits, food banks are bracing for an influx in demand. Throughout the pandemic, they broadened their reach as a social safety net as more people sought help — many for the first time. At the beginning of the pandemic, four in 10 people visiting food banks across the country were doing so for the first time, according to the nonprofit Feeding America.
Second Harvest of Silicon Valley — which serves residents in San Mateo and Santa Clara counties — doubled the number of people they fed when the pandemic hit, from about 250,000 clients a month to 500,000.
The nonprofit currently provides food for 460,000 people on average each month — an 80% increase from before the pandemic.
In fall 2021, adults 65 and older had a higher poverty rate, 16.3%, than children and adults between 18 and 64, according to the Public Policy Institute of California. In previous years, child poverty has been the highest.
Latinos are also disproportionately impacted by poverty in California, though the rate has fallen since 2019. In 2021, they made up 45.7% of impoverished Californians, but 39.7% of the state’s population.
Second Harvest CEO Leslie Bacho said many of the federal financial resources that helped them meet the need have disappeared. At the same time, donations fell, and their food costs climbed 30%.
That’s already led the agency to make some difficult decisions. Second Harvest typically gave out a gallon of milk to clients at food distributions. But at the beginning of the year, they reduced it to a half-gallon.
“The hard reality is we have limited resources, and the numbers are not adding up, so we’re having to take a really hard look at that,” Bacho said.
Stephanie Garcia, 39, a single mother of a six-year-old in San Jose, saw just how limited those resources were on Friday morning when she went to the Mayfair Community Center to pick up food being distributed by Second Harvest. While she said she was grateful for what she did get — a couple of canned goods and some frozen vegetables — she left without eggs, milk or any fresh fruits and vegetables.
“This morning, [my daughter] says, ‘mommy, you’re Superwoman, and I’m your Supergirl,” Garcia said. “It felt great, and it was a little bit of a tug on the heartstrings. But Superwoman couldn’t come home with eggs and milk.”
With strained resources, Garcia has resorted to swapping food with family and friends who might have obtained different items at other food distribution sites.
East Bay food banks are grappling with similar issues. Liz Gomez, chief impact officer for the Alameda County Community Food Bank, is kept up at night thinking about whether it will have enough resources once the emergency funds end.
“For this to happen when inflation is high and food prices are through the roof, it’s really going to be devastating,” she said. “It’s going to be devastating not just for the families and people who need assistance, but also the food banks who are here to provide emergency assistance to people who need services. And it’s also going to be an impact on our local economy.”
Caroline Danielson, a senior fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California, said programs like CalFresh typically aren’t meant to cover a family’s entire monthly food bill. But in past recessions, the federal government has stepped in with additional funds to lessen the impact on the economy. Those benefits, however, aren’t meant to last forever, and the end will be a “shock to family budgets.”
“In our poverty work, we showed that CalFresh had twice the impact in 2021 as it did in 2019 in reducing poverty,” Danielson said. “Some of that benefit will go away and it won’t have quite the same poverty effect that it did in 2021.”
Without additional funds for food, a few hundred thousand Californians could be plunged back below the poverty level, she said.
Bacho would like the government to increase the benefits and adjust them for the local cost of living.
“We cannot end hunger by food banks just distributing more food,” she said. “It’s going to take some real system change to make that possible.”