Future Of Low Income Food Assistance Uncertain As Government Shutdown Continues

Jan 15, 2019

Local, low-income families who rely on CalFresh to buy their groceries are the latest to be affected by the partial government shutdown. 

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.  In California, the program is known as CalFresh.  

The money comes on an electronic benefit card, or EBT card, that allows low-income families to shop in local grocery stores for things like meat and milk.  A family of four can get up to $642 a month.

“Utilizing CalFresh benefits really helps preserve the other income that they have for other necessities: rent, toiletries, medical bills gas, etcetera,” says  Kimberly Petersen at the Santa Cruz County Human Services Department. She oversees the CalFresh program in Santa Cruz County. 

But after January 20, the USDA will no longer be able to issue funds for SNAP.  So it told states to issue February benefits on or before this Sunday.  Santa Cruz County started issuing February benefits on Monday, January 14 and will continue into the weekend.

“It's not a bonus allotment, unfortunately.  If the shutdown were to end this week, which would be awesome. That allotment that they received is still their allotment for the month of February,” says Petersen.

So that means families will have to plan ahead to make the money last.  

“A lot of people when they're hungry and when they're in need, the last thing they really have in their mind is budgeting,” says Joel Campos, Director of Community Outreach at the Second Harvest Food Bank Santa Cruz in Watsonville.

Campos expects that as people run out of their February money, demand at the Food Bank will increase dramatically.  

He calls CalFresh the first line of defense against hunger.  He says the Food Bank can supplement the program, but can’t replace it.  Not only does the Food Bank’s  budget pale in comparison, but it doesn’t offer the variety of food people can buy with CalFresh at their local grocery store.

“We're talking about fish, lean protein, meats, dairy, stuff that we don't usually provide to the community, but they could purchase with this program,” says Campos.

As Second Harvest prepares to offer greater assistance to people who use CalFresh, it’s also opening its doors to federal employees.  Second Harvest’s Development Officer Suzanne Willis says that haven’t seen many.

“This is a group of people that might not necessarily know about the Food Bank and the services that we offer because they had relatively steady employment,” she says.

Anyone in need of food assistance can call the Community Food Hotline at 831-662-0991.

It’s unknown whether people who rely on CalFresh will get any money for March.  Despite the uncertainty, people can still apply for and get CalFresh benefits as long as funds are available.    

Last week, Congressman Jimmy Panetta pushed for a bill that would re-open the USDA so that these benefits don’t get interrupted.  The bill made it out of the House and now is waiting for a vote in the Senate.