As record numbers of Californians struggle to put food on the table, programs designed to help the hungry are under stress.
An examination by California Watch and reporters from USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism shows that food banks and food stamps, two key safety net programs for poor people in the Golden State, are sagging under soaring demand and long-ignored problems that impair their effectiveness.
In recession-battered California, an unprecedented 11 million people – more than one in four – live in households that are "food insecure," meaning they lack regular access to sufficient food, according to a survey by UCLA’s Center for Health Policy Research.
Yet the U.S. Department of Agriculture has reported that as many as 2.9 million Californians who are eligible for federal food-stamp aid don’t receive these benefits.
John Wagner, director of the California Department of Social Services, said the Department of Agriculture overstates the size of the problem, as it is based on data that is more than two years old. But he acknowledged that more Californians should get food stamps.
“There is definitely improvement that needs to be made in California’s participation rate,” Wagner said. “We are committed to finding innovative ways to increase access to this important benefit.”
Experts says a labyrinth of bureaucratic rules, regulations and requirements – created by state officials to check welfare fraud – have deterred huge numbers of eligible Californians from applying for food stamps.
Boosting the state’s low rate of participation in the food stamp program would pump as much as $3.7 billion per year into California’s economy, advocates say.
It would also ease pressure on the charities and local agencies that provided free food to an estimated four million Californians last year via a network of foods banks.
"Food stamps present a tremendous opportunity to help California families in a meaningful way,” said Matt Sharp of California Food Policy Advocates, which lobbies for aid to poor people. “Policymakers need to focus on food stamp utilization."
Food banks act as a first line of defense
Food banks form a vital front line in the battle against hunger in California. Last year they doled out 302 million pounds of free food in California, according to Feeding America, a national anti-hunger group. Four million people were served last year, according to an estimate based on reports from California food banks.
In the Los Angeles basin alone, 700,000 people obtained free food from local food pantries last year, according to the Los Angeles Regional Foodbank which provides food and resources to 540 charitable agencies. The organization says demand for free food has grown by more than 33 percent since the recession began.
This rising demand has put the food bank system under severe duress, the organization says.
“There is certainly a gap in the demand for food assistance and the supply of food that the food safety net is able to provide,” said Foodbank spokesperson Julie Flynn.
A typical client is Eularia Juarez, a young mother of two who on a recent Monday morning stood in a long line at Helping One Another Progress, church-run food bank east of downtown Los Angeles. People at the front of the line had arrived at 3 a.m. to get a ticket and wait for a single box of groceries.
While Juarez waited, her children, Eularia, 2, and Francisco, 3, amused themselves by sucking on popsicles.
“Usually I give them popsicles for breakfast,” she remarked.
Finally it was Juarez’s turn. She exchanged her ticket for a box containing dry beans, powdered milk, a meat product, a few tomatoes and cereal.
For elderly people on fixed incomes, the free food from the food bank can be the difference between eating and going hungry, said Foodbank CEO Michael Flood. When money is tight, many elderly people cut back on food, he says.
Tight doesn’t adequately describe the personal finances reported by Josephine Bilodeau, 64, a Los Angeles woman who suffers from osteoporosis and is confined to a wheelchair.
Each Monday morning she said she rides the bus to the Wilshire Presbyterian Church for free groceries.
“These food banks are a blessing to me because what little money I get, it all goes to rent,” she said.
Bilodeau said she lives on a fixed income of $666 per month. Her rent, she said, is $665, leaving $1 for spending money each month, which she said she uses to buy an ice cream cone.
“You can’t be embarrassed and be hungry too," Bilodeau said. "You gotta swallow your pride and get help when you need it, when you can get it.”
Food stamp applications met by obstacles
Since the 1960s, the federal government’s response to the problem of hunger in America has been food stamps.
Formally known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, food stamps date back to President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty.
Other states encourage needy people to enroll. But in California, an applicant must surmount a series of bureaucratic hurdles – erected to prevent fraud – to qualify for the program.
Critics say the result is California’s extraordinarily low food stamp participation rate – barely 50 percent, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has estimated. This means that in addition to the 2.9 million Californians now on food stamps, an additional 2.9 million residents are eligible for the program but are not participating.
Californians who have applied for food stamps say applicants must run a bureaucratic gauntlet to prove they are eligible for the equivalent of $36.50 per week for food.
Eligibility is based on household income tests. Monthly gross income cannot exceed $1,106.00; for a three-person household the limit is $1,861.00.
Those eligibility requirements are needlessly inflexible and unrealistic, complained Hollywood production assistant Michael Wood, 49, who has been on and off food stamps for two decades.
“I understand why you need limitations on how much money you can make, but I work 12-hour days, seven days a week, for three weeks straight,” he said. “And I’ll make money for that and get paid in one big chunk. So I might not find another job for months, but I’m ineligible for those months.”
An applicant must be persistent to qualify for food stamps in California. People familiar with the system say it’s unwise for applicants to make other plans on days when they have appointments at the county social services offices that administer the program.
The wait can be as short as two hours or as long as an entire day, according to participants like unemployed country-and-western singer Harold Summers Jr. He said he spent almost eight hours one day recently in a MacArthur Park social services office before getting approved for the program.
Not everybody gets approved. Take the example of Dimas Gutierrez, 35, a construction worker who was injured on the job and cannot work as a result. He said that he, his wife and his 16-month-old son recently waited four hours outside a social services office on Wilshire Boulevard in a vain attempt to apply for food stamps.
After the wait, Gutierrez said he was told that to qualify, he needed to provide paperwork from his former employer verifying his work-exempt status. Gutierrez didn’t have it, and so he and his family were sent home and told to return another day after getting the proper forms.
County offices intimidating to some
Advocates for poor people say that heavy security at some county welfare offices creates an intimidating environment that discourages eligible people from seeking food stamps.
At the generic or specific county offices in Los Angeles County, patrons are greeted by armed guards and required to step through full-body metal detectors before they begin their wait to fill out applications.
Applicants also must make an appointment to be fingerprinted, often on a separate day.
“They shouldn’t make you feel like a criminal if you need to apply for food stamps,” said Frank Tamborello of the Hunger Action LA advocacy group. “They shouldn’t take people’s fingerprints and they shouldn’t have to make you feel like security is staring you down the whole time you’re there.”
Once an application is filed and approved, an applicant has a one-on-one, in-person interview with a social worker. To ease language problems, the state employs many bilingual case workers, but complications arise anyway.
It’s tough to grapple with the bureaucracy when you’re hungry, said Josh Davis, 24, an unemployed Los Angeles man.
“Applying for food stamps – sometimes it’s as much work as a full-time job,” he said.
Reformers say that if the application process were more user-friendly, both California’s needy – and the state’s recession-battered economy – would benefit.
Federal food-stamp benefits represent money that is injected directly into the local economy, advocates say, via purchases at local stores. Every $1 in food stamp spending generates the equivalent of $1.84 in local economic activity, the California Food Policy Advocates group said in a 2009 report.
Thus, if everyone who is eligible for food stamps obtained them, California would obtain an annual economic boost of about $3.7 billion, the report contended.
Officials promise reforms
In an interview, Department of Social Services director Wagner cited more than a dozen state initiatives aimed at boosting the participation rate. California has streamlined the application process, he says.
Other initiatives include re-branding the program with a new name, providing application assistance through food banks and other groups, and waiving face-to-face meeting requirements for applicants.
Wagner believes the efforts are making an impact. In the last two years, applications for food stamps in California soared by 800,000, or about 40 percent. Some experts say the increase may mostly be the result of the recession.
Until the economy improves, food banks expect they will somehow have to pick up the slack.
“More people are coming, new people,” said Gillian Wagner, one of the directors of Hope-Net, an organization that oversees 12 food pantries in Los Angeles. “People are coming in with their families, younger people, I’m guessing they’ve just been laid off.”
These stories are the result of a collaboration between USC’s Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism and California Watch, a project of the Center for Investigative Reporting. The 13 reporters are graduate students at USC Annenberg. They worked under the supervision of award-winning journalist and USC Annenberg associate professor Sandy Tolan, and Marcia Parker, formerly Launch Manager of California Watch and assistant dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at UC Berkeley. This piece was co-authored by Emilie Mutert and Ashley Ragovin two graduate students at USC's Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.
To see more of the students work go to http://hungerincal.uscannenberg.org