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EDITOR’S NOTE: This op-ed was published with permission of SPUR, an urban planning policy group in the San Francisco Bay Area.
As the coronavirus pandemic continues to spread, its immediate impact is most acutely felt in the loss of life, sickness, and social distancing we are all witnessing in the Bay Area. But, now only a couple weeks into “shelter-in-place” orders here in California and elsewhere across the country, the secondary impact on the economy is crashing down on us.
Huge sectors of the economy have ground to a halt, resulting in businesses shrinking dramatically or closing up shop altogether, and laying off millions of people. In California alone, 1 million people filed for unemployment benefits in just two weeks. Looking ahead, projections on the number of people who might lose their job vary widely, but they are all grim and of historic proportions. Job losses are already leading record numbers of people to apply for CalFresh benefits (formerly food stamps) through state’s online application, GetCalFresh.
Applications for CalFresh submitted online through GetCalFresh nearly quadrupled in one week as shelter in place went into effect. (Source: Tracey Patterson, GetCalFresh, via Twitter)
Amidst this economic havoc, we all still need to eat. This means we need both a functioning food supply chain and people need to be able to access food.
To keep food flowing and avoid historic levels of hunger, policymakers at the local, state, and federal levels can, and should, take immediate steps. While some important measures have been taken including Congress providing additional CalFresh (formerly food stamp) benefits for many people and authorizing funds to families whose kids are missing school meals; the Governor directing the national guard to assist food banks; and local shelter in place orders recognizing food businesses as essential services — more needs to be done.
After talking with policy experts and organizations working all across the food system in the Bay Area, we compiled a list of specific actions that agency heads and elected officials can take right now. This is by no means a comprehensive list — but it’s a start and we encourage policymakers to act quickly to dampen the impact of the virus — on farms, at family’s dining room tables, and everywhere in between.
Ensure county social services agencies are adequately staffed to process the surge of new applications that has begun.
In California, many of our social safety net programs like CalFresh and CalWorks (formerly known as welfare) are administered at the county level by Social Services agencies. These agencies are about to see an unprecedented flood of applicants. Without adequate staffing and streamlined processes, they will become a bottleneck that slows food assistance and cash aid, primarily funded by the federal government, from reaching people who need it. San Francisco’s Human Services Agency recently adapted well to receive a surge of applications for CalFresh after a policy change that went into effect in 2019 — and agencies in counties throughout the region will need to match or surpass that level of effort, with even less lead time.
Provide funding to expand programs that supplement government food assistance programs, like healthy food incentives, food vouchers, fruit and vegetable prescription programs, and food pantries.
CalFresh is a critical lifeline for people struggling to make ends meet. But, benefits often aren’t enough to buy enough food. Healthy food incentive programs like Double Up Food Bucks, Market Match, ¡Más Fresco!, and Fresh Creds all provide matching dollars to people using CalFresh that help stretch food budgets further. CalFresh also falls short because you can’t generally access benefits if you don’t have a US citizen in your family. Because of this, local governments can’t rely on CalFresh to reach everyone who is food insecure. Instead, local governments should also direct funding to programs that don’t have the same eligibility requirements as CalFresh. Programs like Vouchers for Veggies (already operating in San Francisco and Los Angeles), for example, have already been working well and can scale more broadly. The local food banks operating in SPUR’s geography (San Francisco, Alameda, and Santa Clara counties) are already operating on overdrive and they too can use financial support to meet the need that is only going to grow, as can programs such as Meals on Wheels.
School districts should make it as easy as possible for parents to pick up “to go” meals for their kids at emergency food access sites.
Across the Bay Area school districts have rapidly moved from in-school meals to serving breakfast and lunch at community-based pick-up locations. And just this past week, the USDA waived the rule stipulating that the school district cannot receive the traditional per-meal reimbursement unless a child is present while still encouraging local administrators to ensure “program integrity.” Stopping fraud is an important concern, but any process that local districts develop to identify eligible families should keep the barriers to accessing this school meals substitute as low as possible during this extraordinary time.
Lift restrictions on delivery routes during the crisis
Keeping the food supply chain running smoothly during this time includes allowing food delivery trucks to move around at hours that may usually be restricted. Los Angeles, for example, in its emergency declaration, lifted its normal “delivery curfew”. As the California Grocers’ Association has highlighted, mayors and county executives should recognize that for the time being, regulations cannot assume a business-as-usual context.
At each U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Farmers Market, a sample of what $10 of USDA Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits can purchase.
Allow farmers’ markets to continue operating
Farmer’s markets not only provide fresh food to thousands of families around the Bay Area, but they also provide the primary place where local farmers sell their products and make a living. Like with grocery stores, the Governor deemed farmers’ markets an “essential service” that can remain open during the statewide shelter in place order. Despite this, some local officials have shut down farmers markets. Local leaders should ensure that farmers’ markets are allowed to remain open and follow state guidance to reduce the risk of exposure. The Community Alliance with Family Farmers can provide support on this issue.
Maximize flexibility so that as many people as possible can sign up for, and easily remain on, CalFresh
Governor Newsom, through an Executive Order, and the state Department of Social Services, through a waiver they received from USDA, have temporarily removed some of the requirements for documentation that often results in people losing CalFresh and other benefits they would usually be able to keep but for missing a paperwork deadline. This is an important first step to help keep people connected to food assistance when county and state administrative capacity is strained.
Congress’ second package of relief legislation authorized USDA to waive a number of the onerous requirements people face when signing up for SNAP/CalFresh. California’s Department of Social Services should seek a waiver from the USDA to maximize the flexibility allowed and make CalFresh as easy to access as possible for the surge of new applicants who need food assistance quickly.
Enroll as many people as quickly as possible in “Pandemic EBT”
Additionally, that same legislation also allows states to provide “Pandemic EBT,” which is money for food on a debit card issued by the state provided to families with school-age children who qualify for free or reduced-price meals and are no longer receiving meals at school. The state Department of Education and Department of Social Services should make it as streamlined as possible for parents of kids who were on school meals to get these benefits by: identifying matches between the school systems’ and Department of Social Services’ databases, enrolling families quickly, and focusing on opt-out mechanisms, rather than more cumbersome opt-in options.
Expand other federally funded food assistance programs
California Food Policy Advocates has a great set of additional recommendations that state agencies, including the Department of Social Services, Department of Education, and Department of Public Health, can take to maximize the impact of food assistance programs funded by the federal government such as WIC (Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children) and the Child and Adult Care Food Program.
The CA Meals for Kids mobile app connects families with nearby afterschool and summer-meal programs.
Classify grocery retail workers as emergency employees in order to extend additional benefits.
Grocery retailer workers are considered “essential” during the pandemic yet they do not have paid sick leave, putting both themselves and the customers they serve in danger. Extending additional benefits including paid sick leave and childcare allows these employees to take care of themselves and serve the community. The United Food and Commercial Workers are pursuing this intervention in California, following implementation in Michigan, Minnesota and Vermont.
Implement safety protocols for grocery retail, drug retail and food delivery employees.
Councilmembers in Los Angeles have called for safety protocols and worker protections at the local level. In addition, New York has outlined a number of best practices for grocery retail. The United Food and Commercial Workers are pushing for a number of these policy changes which are examples of how California can support essential service employees.
Provide additional funding for emergency food providers.
The state of California has already recognized the importance of supporting the state’s food banks with state funds. While the most recent rescue package from Congress is likely to include more than $400 million for food banks nationwide, in California alone the need for funds could total one-quarter of that amount. State lawmakers should work with the California Association of Food Banks to identify and fill any remaining funding gaps in the weeks and months to come.
USDA should expand the SNAP Online Purchasing Pilot.
Currently, USDA allows people to use their SNAP benefits to buy groceries online for delivery in five pilot states. The USDA should both expand that pilot to as many states as possible, including California, and should also bring in as many additional stores as possible into the program. Food delivery is key for those who are unable to leave the house and high-risk populations during shelter in place. The California Department of Social Services has requested this intervention and notes that if the Federal Government approves online ordering they can implement online ordering within two weeks.
USDA should suspend its pursuit of new changes to SNAP that would drastically reduce access to food
Last year, USDA proposed three new rules that would, if implemented, drastically reduce SNAP access and benefits. At a time when Congress and the White House are rightly focused on increasing SNAP access, it does not make sense for USDA to move forward with these counterproductive rules.
Many farmers markets accept SNAP/EBT, but SNAP benefits are typically not extensive enough, and we recommend an across-the-board 15% increase in benefits to address this gap.
Congress should increase the base-level SNAP benefit by at least 15 percent
As the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities has pointed out, SNAP benefits are already inadequate in many cases and as we move into a period of high unemployment, that will be even more true. An across-the-board increase of SNAP benefits by 15 percent would help close the gap.
Weekly reports of job losses and business closure make clear that we are about to go through a period of economic hardship in the US that is only rivaled by the Great Depression. Thankfully, since that time, policymakers have learned that there are steps local, state, and the federal government can take to blunt the blow of an economic shock. But those steps only work if they are taken and, given the magnitude of what we’re facing, there are immediate policy changes needed in every aspect of our food system.
Eli Zigas is SPUR's Food and Agriculture Policy Director.
Diego Ortiz is SPUR's Food and Agriculture Program Coordinator.
Katie Ettman is SPUR's Food and Agriculture Policy Associate.