Food banks in Sonoma County see spike in demand after state ends emergency benefits
Participants in the state’s food assistance program suffered a financial blow earlier this year as emergency allotments ended, leaving families struggling to afford food and essentials amid soaring prices. Food banks in Sonoma County and across the state quickly saw demand reach record levels.
And the demand has not slowed.
The passing of the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2023 ended the pandemic-driven emergency issuance of up to $95 per CalFresh participant as of April 1, meaning participants of CalFresh, California’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program commonly known as SNAP, went back to receiving their regular benefit amounts.
Becky Silva, director of government relations with the California Association of Food Banks, said many households that were receiving the maximum benefit for their household size went to receiving the minimum.
The minimum CalFresh allotment for a household of one or two people is $23 a month.
“That’s barely enough to cover the cost of a loaf of bread, a gallon of milk and eggs,” Silva said. “It’s a huge drop in benefit.”
Allison Goodwin, director of programs for Redwood Empire Food Bank based in Santa Rosa, said demand after the emergency allotments ended was immediate but not unexpected.
“I don’t know that we really considered how immediate the demand would be,” Goodwin said.
Since Oct. 1, 2022, the Redwood Empire Food Bank has offered 33% more assistance to households compared to the previous year, providing a total of 462,400 food provisions to those in need.
Goodwin said some locations ran out of food in the days leading up to and following the ending of the emergency allotments.
“People just get scared when they hear that anything that has to do with benefits or something that they rely on every month is ending or getting cut,” Goodwin said.
The California Association of Food Banks has 41 member food banks, including Redwood Empire Food Bank.
A survey of the 41 food banks was conducted to evaluate how they were feeling after the ending of CalFresh emergency allotments. According to the survey, almost all members said they were getting more calls from community members seeking food assistance and that they were serving more people.
Silva said many food banks have tapped into budget reserves or gone through their spending budgets at an accelerated pace because of the demand.
“Food banks across the board are really worried,” Silva said. “Throughout the pandemic, a lot of food banks were serving double, or even triple, the number of people that they were serving pre-pandemic and that elevated demand has been sustained through the last three years.”
When the emergency allotments ended earlier this year, CalFresh participants lost about a third of their budget.
Francesca Costa, director of food assistance for Code for America, a nonprofit public advocacy organization based in San Francisco, said the ending of these allotments created the perfect storm between the community and food distribution services.
And, with schools preparing to release students for summer break, families with kids at home are going to have a harder time to make ends meet.
“This is coming at a really bad time,” Costa said. “It (the emergency allotments) were a huge part of the safety net through the pandemic and now people affected are losing a third of their benefits.”
Costa said about 3 million households in California participate in CalFresh, or about 5 million people.
Data from CalFresh shows there are just under 24,000 households in Sonoma County that participate in the program as of January 2023.
Further findings from California Association of Food Banks said each CalFresh participant lost, on average, $82 a month with benefits dropping to a meager average of $6 per person per day.
But CalFresh participants may not be left in the dark for much longer as state legislators have been working on ways to provide relief.
One of these methods is Senate Bill 600, also known as the California CalFresh Minimum Benefit Adequacy Act of 2023, introduced by Sen. Caroline Menjivar, D-San Fernando Valley, which if passed would increase the minimum monthly allotment of benefits to $50.
State Bill 348, introduced by Sen. Nancy Skinner, D-Berkley, would ensure access to School Meals for All and Summer Electronic Benefits Transfer starting in 2024 to give children access to meals while schools are closed during the summer.
Another path of aid could potentially come from the finalization of the state budget. Silva said they’re hoping to have $60 million allocated to food bank funding, which would allow the purchase of California-grown or produced foods that don’t get donated often, like chicken or eggs.
Until these efforts are passed, though, CalFresh participants are turning to food banks and free pantries to make up for the loss in benefits.
“This is a huge loss for the hunger efforts in California,” Costa said. “I recommend (participants) call 211 and get information about resources for food, housing and things like that.”
You can reach Staff Writer Sara Edwards at 707-521-5487 or sara.edwards@pressdemocrat. com. On Twitter @sedwards380.