Hungry much?

California faces severe food aid gap in time of need


By Hugh Biggar

Here's something to chew on with your bagel and coffee—assuming you can afford that in these trying times. Roughly, 2.3 million Californians are receiving official help getting enough to eat, but nearly 3 million others who qualify are not.

In fact, California's low enrollment in the federal food stamp program, known officially as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or in California, CalFresh, is costing the state both socially and economically.

"There's a deepening crisis," Matthew Sharp, a senior advocate with the nonprofit California Food Policy Advocates, said. "California's high housing costs and extreme unemployment are two forces that have put pressure on households."

Despite increasing need, however, less than half of those eligible for Cal Fresh assistance receive it, placing California next to last nationally. In other states, about 75 percent of those eligible for federal food stamp help take part, and some states are well above that threshold. Oregon, for instance, reaches about 90 percent of those who qualify.

In California, though, just about 43 percent of those eligible take part.

Socially, this means, of course, that millions of people are not getting enough to eat, leading to a range of other issues including health problems and hungry children underperforming at school. (In California, about 17 percent of children live in poverty, including roughly 3 million who qualify for free or reduced price meals.)

Economically, low participation in CalFresh also leaves money on the table at time when businesses and California's tax bureau are badly in need of funds. While the money per day may seem small, $4.50 for individual or about the cost of that bagel and coffee, it can still go a long way. Weekly CalFresh assistance equals $31 for an individual, or $325 monthly for a family of four.

"Food stamps stimulate the economy in a variety of ways," explained Chris Wimer, associate director of the Stanford Center for the Study of Poverty and Inequality.

For instance, the U.S. Department of Agriculture—the federal administrator of the food stamp program—has found that every $5 spent from food stamps generates about $9 in related economic activity.

Additionally, CFPA has found that boosting California's food stamp participation to the 75 percent level would generate about $131 million in sales tax revenue, including $27 million for non-general fund expenses.

But instead, low enrollment means California's loses out on about $5 billion annually or nearly $9 billion in related economic activity. On the county level, this includes losses as well. Los Angeles County is estimated to lose out on $1.3 billion in direct assistance and $2.4 billion in related activity; Alameda County, $106 million and $191 million; San Diego County, $354 million and $634 million.

At the same time, the level of need continues to increase due to a stalled economy and flat wages.

"Overall wages have dramatically declined, particularly in the services industries such as hotel workers," Sharp said from CFPA's Los Angeles office, noting that falling incomes have made Cal Fresh an increasingly common supplement to family's budgets.

In addition, the type of person in need of help has also shifted, and can include college students, those with jobs but not making enough to get by, and senior citizens.

"The variety of households taking part has increased astronomically," Sharp said. "This includes families that have never struggled with unemployment before and it has had a staggering effect on them."

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