Pandemic response shows hunger is a problem that can be solved

Policymakers must commit to giving all Californians access to food regardless of race or origins

Thanksgiving will be different this year given the pandemic. Many traditions will likely continue — at a social distance, of course — including acts of charity, giving thanks, and reflections on the past year. Food will certainly be a part of Thanksgiving, though affording enough food is an even greater struggle for too many of our friends, family, and neighbors this year. Our state’s existing problems with poverty and food insecurity were exacerbated by the twin health and economic crises driven by Covid-19. Despite the enormity of the problem – a look at the policy responses to the crises over the past year clarifies one thing: hunger is a solvable problem.

When the pandemic and shelter in place orders first began, Governor Newsom ordered school meals to continue and demanded that barriers to CalFresh be removed. Congress authorized stimulus payments. The U.S. Department of Agriculture offered “waivers” to states to make a wide range of nutrition programs easier to access. And perhaps the biggest policy success: In just a few short months California’s Pandemic EBT program provided $1.4 billion in food aid to children eligible for free school meals but not at school.

Many of these pandemic policies have been very effective and well-received – so much so that policymakers should take action to make similar policies permanent: Expand the number of schools in California that serve all students for free. Make CalFresh access improvements permanent, including ensuring all Californians can complete an application by phone. And in the spirit of Pandemic EBT, “Summer EBT” food benefits should be provided to students eligible for free meals when school is closed for the summer.

Despite these promising changes, without racial justice, there won’t be food for all. During the pandemic, Black households in California have been three and half times more likely to experience food insufficiency than white households. From educational opportunity to lending practices to tax laws, policies in California and the nation at large have disproportionately benefited white, wealthy individuals at the expense of others. Such policies create inequities that can drive the need for food assistance and the experience of applicants worsens the situation.

Stakeholders have told us that their clients experience racism — systemic and outright — in trying to access food assistance. One client internalized the experience as a “price that had to be paid.” Imagine what that might feel like — just trying to feed your family during this national time of reckoning on racism and knowing that microaggressions and racist treatment are the tradeoff. Accepting differential treatment or outright racism is not a price one should have to pay.

Additionally, many immigrants have been left out of key Covid recovery responses. While a significant number of immigrants have continued to be employed during the crisis as “essential” others have faced work reductions or job loss despite often being ineligible for public stimulus dollars. In addition, exclusionary policies prevent many immigrants from accessing the benefits of programs like CalFresh — benefits that have been so critical to individuals and to our struggling economy. Policymakers should commit to ensuring all Californians have equitable access to nutritious, affordable food, no matter where they were born.

It shouldn’t have taken a pandemic for us to make some of these changes. But the success of these changes shows that hunger is a problem that can be solved and that policy action needs to be a large part of the solution. As Governor Newsom and the state legislature make plans for 2021 they must address racial disparities, provide food aid regardless of immigration status, and build upon the positive food policy actions emerging in the pandemic. Everyone in California should have enough to eat not just this Thanksgiving, not just through the pandemic, but into the uncertain times ahead.

George Manalo-LeClair is the executive director of Nourish California, formerly known as California Food Policy Advocates.

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