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Pandemic food benefits are ending for millions of Californians. Now what?

Nearly 3 million California households will no longer receive additional federal food benefits during the COVID-19 pandemic, a strain on budgets as people continue to struggle with the rising cost of living.

Since March 2020, low-income Californians have seen an increase in CalFresh benefits, the state version of the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps. But that emergency aid ends this month as Congress voted to end the extra benefits as part of the federal omnibus spending plan.

Now Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom and state lawmakers are under pressure to fill the gaps as experts warn of worsening food insecurity and food banks scramble to prepare for an influx of customers.

The average CalFresh recipient is expected to lose $82 per month, and the average household about $200 per month. The decline will be greatest for older Californians, with monthly benefits expected to drop from $281 to $23 for some.

Delia Priscilla Ortega Darden lined up at the South Sacramento Interfaith Partnership food bank in the 48-degree wind Wednesday to pick up free groceries after her CalFresh benefit ran out days ago.

Delia Priscilla Ortega Darden visits the South Sacramento Interfaith Partnership food bank on Wednesday, where she collects free groceries when CalFresh benefits run out.

(Mackenzie Mays/Los Angeles Times)

Ortega Darden, 64, said she lives in her car after being unable to work due to health problems, including multiple sclerosis. She uses local food banks to make ends meet, but benefits from CalFresh – which can be used to buy fresh fruits and veggies — are crucial to her health, she said. She uses a walker and said a better diet has helped with muscle cramps in her legs.

Like nearly 5 million other Californians enrolled in the program, she will see at least $95 in benefits reduced as a result of the end of federal emergency appropriations. That means she will rely more on food banks and places like the Dollar Tree, where she often buys cheap foods like bologna to make ends meet, she said.

“My whole health has improved,” Ortega Darden said of CalFresh.

While New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy, a Democrat, signed an invoice last month to raise the state’s SNAP minimum benefits in light of the federal budget cut, Newsom has so far advised against promising major current spending as the state faces a $22.5 billion budget deficit.

Senator Caroline Menjivar (D-San Fernando Valley) has introduced legislation that more than doubles the minimum monthly CalFresh benefit in California from $23 to $50. In New Jersey, the minimum has risen to $95.

The legislation would cost the state dearly; more than $500 million per month. But Menjivar said reducing food insecurity is a preventative measure that ultimately saves state costs exacerbated by poverty, including costs related to the homelessness crisis.

Although inflation has eased, California remains one of the most expensive places to live in the country. Menjivar said this should be considered by Newsom and the legislature in supporting the state’s safety net programs.

“It crosses so many different things and can prevent so many different things. It’s about making sure our most vulnerable families don’t fall further into poverty,” she said. “What can you afford right now for $23 a month?”

The state budget proposed by Newsom in January did not reflect the impact of the Consolidated Appropriations Act passed by Congress. Changes to the budget are expected in May. However, the governor has so far urged caution regarding pending spending commitments.

“At this point in the process, we’re not going to commit to any additional state funds for some programs until we have a better idea of ​​what the fiscal picture looks like,” said HD Palmer, spokesman for Newsom’s Treasury Department.

The California Department of Social Services, which has been warning of the end of benefits for months, pointed to food banks as a solution, saying they are working to be “as prepared as possible for potentially increased demand.”

But that’s not enough, says Stacia Hill Levenfeld, CEO of the California Assn. of Food Banks, who called the timing “catastrophic.” The loss of the pandemic food benefits, plus the final expiration of electronic transfer cards for low-income children, represents a 30% loss to the state’s food safety net, she said.

“There’s no way food banks alone can fill the gap,” Hill Levenfeld said.

Last year, nearly 1 in 4 residents of Los Angeles County, about 800,000 households, experienced food insecurity, according to a report issued by the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.

“Expiring the CalFresh program emergency stimulus while inflation and food costs remain high could push low-income Angelenos to the precipice of a hunger cliff,” said Kayla de la Haye, associate professor of population and public at USC Dornsife . Health Sciences.

On Tuesday, Newsom officially ended California’s COVID-19 state of emergency. The end of the benefits of the COVID-19 era for low-income families could lead to more attempts at legislation to broaden the social safety net.

On Monday, Assemblyman Miguel Santiago (D-Los Angeles) introduced a bill to extend a child tax credit to more low-income families, citing food and rent costs and the need for “essential inflation relief.”

Andrew Cheyne, general manager of public policy at GRACE, an anti-poverty organization, said CalFresh’s allotments had long been inadequate. Now people who have become accustomed to years of increased benefits will struggle.

“It’s just really unimaginable to think of the households that go to the grocery store expecting to have money in their account and not have what they need to buy groceries,” he said. “You look at the level of rising food costs over the past year, let alone rising rent costs, and you know people really relied on that amount.”