Averting a Worsening Hunger Crisis Hinges on Making Temporary Benefits Programs Permanent

people grocery shopping on stockton street in sf

Photo by Sergio Ruiz

Millions of California families relying on CalFresh, known federally as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), are about to face a significant decrease in their monthly food assistance. The change is due to the sunsetting of emergency allotments created by Congress through The Families First Coronavirus Response Act, which provided the maximum benefit to each household receiving CalFresh during the COVID-19 pandemic. The hunger crisis potentially looming with the end of the allotments demands a response from the California legislature.


Impact of Ending Emergency Allotments

The maximum allowance for each household receiving an emergency allotment was significant. Single-person households and multiple-person households saw an increase of at least $95 per month. But starting April 1, multiple-person households in California will see a reduction of $200 per month; individual CalFresh participants will see a decrease of $84 per month on average. Some people may once again receive only the minimum benefit, which is just $23 per month. Statewide, there will be an overall reduction of $500 million dollars for Californians relying on CalFresh.


CalFresh emergency allotments were always considered a temporary response to the need that arose during the pandemic, but the abrupt drop in food assistance will mean that low-income Californians will have even less money in their pockets to buy food during a period of historically high food inflation. As SPUR research has highlighted, affordability is the primary barrier to food access. We need policies that increase low-income families’ purchasing power: the State of California should be expanding, not contracting, food assistance benefits. One strategy is to secure a permanent supplement to CalFresh.


SPUR’s Efforts to Lessen a Hunger Crisis That Is Set to Worsen

For the last six years, SPUR has run Double Up Food Bucks California to address the financial barrier to food access. Families using Double Up Food Bucks have reported that they eat more fruits and vegetables, as well as have more money for food, because of the program.


In addition, we have been advocating to make supplemental benefit programs, such as Market Match and Mas Fresco, permanent. In 2018, we co-sponsored legislation to pilot a project to make supplemental benefits directly reimbursable to recipients’ EBT (electronic benefit transfer) cards. The resulting California Fruit and Veggie EBT Pilot Project launched at the first of 94 planned sites across the state on February 25. The project allows CalFresh users to earn up to $60 per month in dollar-for-dollar rebates on their EBT card when they purchase California-grown produce. Though the project will not fill the gap created by the large decrease in benefits resulting from the end of emergency allotments, it will make it easier for many families to continue buying the food they need.


SPUR continues to work toward statewide expansion of healthy food access via state and federal legislation. In collaboration with Nourish California, we are sponsoring Assembly Bill 605, the CalFresh Fruit and Vegetable Supplemental Benefits Expansion Program. The bill is our second attempt to widen the availability of supplemental food assistance after last year’s bill died in committee.


SPUR is also working at the federal level to expand fresh food access. We submitted recommendations in advance of last year’s White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition and Health. In addition, we joined a national coalition focused on increasing the available funding for statewide expansion of fruit and vegetable supplemental benefit programs via the federal Farm Bill. This bill currently provides limited one-off grants for supplemental benefits programs through the Gus Schumacher Nutrition Incentive Program (GusNIP). In collaboration with a network of nationwide partners, SPUR is advocating for a new tier of GusNIP funding for organizations that are ready to expand incentive programs statewide.


In the face of rising food costs and a dramatic drop in food assistance benefits, the state and federal legislatures must look to all available tools to ensure that low-income people in California are not left further behind. While we would like to see action at the federal level in the Farm Bill, which is due to be reauthorized this year, the politics of the current Congress make the outlook for progress murky. By contrast, support for food access programs in California is strong, and we hope the state legislature and governor will support the programs’ expansion in this year's budget.


In the meantime, the launch of the Fruit and Veggie EBT Pilot Program provides a base from which to continue building the food safety net, especially given that supplemental benefits for food access are a proven way to both reduce hunger and improve health.