Before the pandemic, Sandy performed as a fiddler at festivals. And before that, as a young woman, she was an activist. She’s a mother and a grandmother with a zest for life.
She also knows what it’s like to experience hunger.
When she was a child living in Northern Ireland, there were times she and her brother would have to split what little food they had.
“I remember a time we split one scrambled egg,” she recalls. “Hunger has always been something. Not ‘I missed lunch,’ but true hunger.”
And now after 48 years in San Francisco, living through so much of this city’s rich and vibrant history, she is experiencing the challenges of living on a fixed income amidst the rising cost of living in the Richmond District.
“I’m living on my savings and I also get retirement. The rent here is $840 a month. I thank God it is only that. And my check is about 800 and…,” she pauses to think. “It’s close, I mean they are right next to each other.”
COVID-19: A Challenge for Seniors
Even before the pandemic, one in seven adults between the ages of 50 and 80 nationwide were food insecure. For many low-income seniors, the Food Bank was a lifeline, helping ensure they weren’t choosing between affording food and paying rent.
COVID-19 suddenly threw a new impossible choice into the mix: choosing between risking your health to pick up much-needed food or go without it. To guarantee they wouldn’t have to make that choice, we started grocery delivery to 12,000 low-income seniors in our community every week.
To aid in these efforts, the USDA also granted a waiver that allowed Amazon to deliver senior boxes from the Supplemental Food Program (SFP), which provides a monthly box of mostly shelf-stable food to seniors living at or below 130% of the Federal Poverty Income Guidelines.
While we look forward to bringing seniors back to the community centers, churches, and other weekly pantries locations, the recent spike in COVID-19 cases makes it clear: seniors like Sandy are still vulnerable.
Grocery Delivery Makes All the Difference
When Sandy’s husband was still alive, the couple relied on the monthly SFP food boxes. But her health challenges made picking up the SFP box difficult, and after her husband was killed, she stopped coming.
Even after she stopped picking up her SFP box, she kept in touch with Shirley Chen, senior program manager at the Food Bank. And in March, Shirley was able to connect her with our CalFresh team who signed her up for benefits, enroll in our Pantry at Home program, and even help her get her SFP box delivered straight to her door.
Unfortunately, the USDA ended the waiver allowing us to deliver SFP boxes for seniors shelter at home in June, making her Pantry at Home deliveries and CalFresh benefits even more crucial.
Thanks to the Food Bank, and the help of its caring staff members and volunteers, Sandy said she hasn’t been so well fed in a long time. “Do you know how long it has been since I could buy a rolled pork roast? My family came over and shared it with me. It fed 5 of us.”
In a time when we just don’t know what tomorrow will bring, the generosity of the Food Bank staff and her neighbors who make these deliveries means a lot. “I’m terribly grateful.”
With three neighborhood food pantries serving more than 800 Richmond District residents each week, a home delivered grocery program that reaches 150 seniors, and a CalFresh application assistance program, The Richmond Neighborhood Center is one of our largest Community Partners.
Before COVID-19, The Richmond Neighborhood Center created a thriving community around its food programs. Pantry volunteer shifts created an atmosphere similar to a family gathering. Even among the participants, weekly pantries were a place to gather and catch up with one another. And with Home Delivered Groceries, the volunteers and seniors were paired individually to have a chance to get to know each other and build a long-term relationship.
COVID-19 changed all of that. While The Richmond Neighborhood Center remained open and continues to serve their community, they had to shift the way they operate. We caught up with Program Manager Yves Xavier, to hear more about how things are going now.
(This conversation was edited for length and clarity.)
Food Bank: How have the last few months been for The Richmond Neighborhood Center?
Yves Xavier: They’ve been going well. The first three weeks of the shelter in place ordinance were pretty zany for lots of reasons. I think we were all a little nervous for our own health. We had to quickly redesign our programs to meet these constantly changing guidelines. Every day it seemed like there was either a new guideline or fear of what this pandemic could bring. So, those first three weeks were tough, but we adjusted and reshaped all our programs.
Specifically, for the pantry, we made quick changes that we wish we didn’t have to make but certainly were better for health. For example, one of the coolest pantry experiences, or at least what we really love about our pantry, is that people from the neighborhood gather together. You make friends or you come over with your friends to sit and talk and wait for your group to line up. Unfortunately, with the pandemic, we had to get rid of all of that.
FB: How is volunteer recruitment?
YX: It was a really cool, unexpected shift – for both home delivered groceries and the pantry, we lost probably half of our regular volunteers. But within a day or two, we had a huge influx of new people from the neighborhood. So, our volunteer corps has been strong since the pandemic began. There just seems to be an outpouring of people who want to help, even though there was a large loss at the same time.
FB: One of your pantries was at George Peabody Elementary. Do you still have access to the school?
YX: Unfortunately, no. We don’t have access to the school, so we moved our pantry operations to The Neighborhood Center. We still run three pantries, but we saw a decrease in participation from participants who lived in the Inner Richmond for lots of reasons – including the fear of getting on a bus, buses not running etc. – who couldn’t make it out to our 30th Avenue Outer Richmond headquarters to get their food. But the Food Bank has helped us deliver to many of them through Pantry at Home.
We’ve also been slowly recruiting volunteers to take over those deliveries. We’re up to making 105 deliveries on our own and we’re hoping to take over all the deliveries to free your staff up to serve more people in the city who need it.
FB: Are you serving more people now?
YX: We’ve definitely seen an increase in participants, but it was similar to the way that the volunteer corps worked. There were some folks in our pantries who stopped attending. And then we also saw an influx of new people. We didn’t talk to everyone about the reasons for coming, but we took a general poll of those in line and heard from many new people who lost jobs their recently.
FB: Aside from the pantries, how has the rest of your programming been going?
YX: Our grocery delivery programs that we do in partnership with the Food Bank and the Richmond Senior Center have carried on. We took about 25 people off our waitlist and served them. It stretches us a bit thin, but it is doable. So that program hasn’t been impacted in a negative way.
But changes had to be made. One of the things that made our home delivery so unique is we did a one to one volunteer match – one volunteer goes to one senior and it’s the same senior and the same volunteer each week. We have seen really cool relationships grow out of that where people get connected and just go over for other things like helping their senior change light bulbs, shop for them, or take them to a doctor’s appointment. There are endless stories like that. But COVID-19 has made people get creative in the way they connect. We stopped asking volunteers to connect in person. Instead, we’re asking people leave bags in front of doors, ring the doorbell, stand six feet away, and wave.
That hasn’t felt great because that social connection is such an important piece of the program. But the bottom line is people are continuing to get their groceries every week. And that’s what we really wanted to make sure is continuing to happen. We’ve encouraged our volunteers to make calls to their seniors, or teach them how to use Zoom, or write emails and pen pal letters. So, folks have been creative, but it’s definitely been a change.
We also saw a huge increase in CalFresh application assistance – more than any other time in my five years working with the food programs at The Neighborhood Center. Now we are taking as many as six appointments a day, which is pretty significant.
FB: How are you planning to adapt programming as the city reopens? Do you anticipate new challenges?
YX: It’s a really good question. I can’t say we’ve thought about it as much as would probably be helpful, but that’s partly because we’re pretty much set on keeping things the way they are for the foreseeable future. Even as things start to reopen throughout the city, we’re not expecting to change much. We’re going to keep people lining up, disallowing congregating, ensuring that everyone is wearing masks, pre-packing bags for participants, etc., until phase four, when mass gatherings are allowed again by the city.
FB: That makes a lot of sense. Was there anything else that you wanted to share about how you’ve adapted to COVID-19?
YX: I’m just really impressed by everybody who helps make these partnerships happen. Our staff and volunteers have been incredible with all their flexibility and dedication. Same goes for the Food Bank staff. Gary, our point person for the pantry, is always professional and friendly. During a difficult time, he was great – always keeping us up to date, helping make sure that we had what we needed, and just overall supportive; as was Jillian who supported us with Home Delivered Groceries.
I’m also impressed with how everything shifted for everyone across the city who does these programs and how people can keep a positive attitude, keep the collaboration going, and work really hard to serve more people and get creative. It’s been really cool to see all that happen.
Food In Crisis, and Every Day
We’ve all seen the images of cars lined up for miles, waiting to get groceries. We’ve witnessed thousands of our neighbors, standing six feet apart, waiting in lines snaking around city blocks in our neighborhoods to pick up food for their families. We’ve read with disbelief the unemployment numbers, growing by millions with every passing week. We’ve rushed to aid our senior neighbors and relatives, sheltering in place and unable to access resources safely. We know that we are in a moment of historic highs for hunger in our community.
But here at the Food Bank, we have known that hunger has been a crisis for thousands of our fellow San Francisco and Marin residents long before the COVID-19 pandemic. That’s why we not only provide free weekly groceries to people experiencing an acute need for food in the moment, but also have invested in long-term policy advocacy to combat hunger at the systemic level.
CalFresh is a Proven Solution
As a proven positive public health intervention and powerful economic stabilizer, CalFresh has a critical dual role to play in California’s immediate and long-term COVID-19 response. Yet, only 19 percent of eligible older Californians (age 60 or over) receive CalFresh, the lowest participation rate of any state. Here in California, the average monthly benefit for a senior is $158, making it especially worth their while to apply. Yet seniors represent the population with the greatest gap between their eligibility for SNAP and their enrollment in the program, due in large part to the administrative hurdles of applying for the program as a senior.
Legislation for Change
We’re working to change that and make it easier for eligible older Californians to get the benefits to which they’re entitled. We’re co-sponsoring a bill in the CA State Senate (SB 882 – Wiener) that would simplify the CalFresh application for many older adults and people with disabilities, while also making permanent several key changes to increase access to CalFresh during the COVID-19 pandemic. The current application is 18 pages long! When is the last time you had to fill out an 18-page application for anything?
SB 882 would eliminate burdensome, ongoing reporting requirements that cause many households to lose nutrition assistance, even when they remain eligible. SB 882 would also ensure that all applicants and participants can complete the application and recertification interview processes by phone, including submitting the required client signature. This is crucial for older adults with limited mobility and access to reliable transportation.
As the COVID-19 crisis continues to make clear, meeting the nutritional needs of low-income households is an urgent and ongoing need. No one should go hungry in California, and it is our collective responsibility to use all the tools we have to make it easier to access our most powerful anti-hunger tool, CalFresh.
Hunger Intensifies for Families With Kids Out of School
Before the pandemic, over 40,000 families in San Francisco and Marin had children who received free or reduced-price meals each day at school. This helped ease the financial burden on hard-working low-income families and ensured that kids were getting the nutrition they needed to thrive in and out of school.
Since schools closed, these families have been scrambling to find resources to feed their kids when work has become scarce and support networks have been strained. We see so many of these parents picking up groceries at our Pop-up pantries while they wait for unemployment insurance or CalFresh benefits to arrive.
New research explores how dramatically the economic collapse has deepened food insecurity, with nearly one in five children not getting enough to eat. That rate is three times higher than in 2008, at the height of the Great Recession. Our pantry programs help, but we need a stronger social safety net to help families in crisis.
Pandemic EBT (P-EBT) Can Help
Thanks to fierce advocacy from anti-hunger groups including the Food Bank, families whose children typically receive free school lunch will now be able to receive up to $365 per child on a debit card to purchase food through a new program called Pandemic EBT (P-EBT). Enacted in March in the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, P-EBT was created to help compensate for those missing school meals. Families whose children receive CalFresh, Medi-Cal, or are in foster care will automatically receive this card in the mail between May 8 and May 22. For those who don’t automatically qualify, a short application will be available on May 22.
Families will be able to use this money to purchase groceries at most grocery stores, farmers’ markets, and at select online retailers. Receiving P-EBT does not jeopardize a person’s immigration status and is not included in public charge determinations. Families are also still encouraged to pick up free to-go meals from school meal sites in their neighborhoods.
More Action is Needed to End Hunger
This will be a tremendous help for many struggling to put food on the table, but it is insufficient to fill the staggering need among families in our community. As the saying goes, “it takes a village to raise a child,” and it will take all of us to urge lawmakers to prioritize policy solutions to feed our children, too.
Please, call your lawmakers (202-224-3121) and urge them to include new investments in SNAP that will help the economy rebound from the impact of the pandemic and ensure the well-being of millions of children. Ask them to:
- boost the SNAP maximum benefit by 15%;
- increase the minimum monthly SNAP benefit from $16 to $30;
- suspend any administrative actions that eliminate or weaken SNAP benefits.
Nutrition Program Reduces Barriers to Access
The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, known as CalFresh here in California, helps people get the food they need to weather economically challenging times. With unemployment reaching staggering new heights, more people are turning to CalFresh than ever before.
The Food Bank is deeply invested in helping eligible people access this program. Our CalFresh Outreach team provides application assistance year-round, walking first-time applicants through what can be a confusing and frustrating process. Our Policy & Advocacy team regularly works with lawmakers at the local, state, and federal levels to improve the administration of the program.
During this pandemic, Congress has included investments in this program in all three COVID-19 economic stimulus bills. Additionally, both the State of California and the Federal government have heeded the demands of advocates to increase flexibility in the CalFresh program to help people more easily access and maintain the benefits they need to survive this crisis.
Federal Changes – Learn more from the USDA
- Pandemic EBT – families with children who receive free or reduced-price lunch whose schools are closed due to the pandemic will receive a pre-loaded EBT (credit-like) card in the mail to spend on food. No application is necessary.
- Emergency SNAP – states are able to provide a “boost” for all CalFresh recipients, bumping their benefit amount up to the maximum allowed for their household size. If you live alone and were receiving $50 pre-COVID, your allotment would be increased to $194/month for the months of March and April.
State Changes – Learn more here
- Waived Interview Requirement – Applicants no longer need to have an interview with a county eligibility worker to be approved for benefits. They only need to apply and submit necessary documents to receive a determination of their eligibility.
- Waived Periodic Reports – CalFresh recipients are temporarily exempt from having to submit documentation to re-verify their need for benefits. This will help people continue to receive money for food without interruption during this period.
- Allowance of Telephonic Signature – For now, applicants can complete the entire application, including their verbal signature, over the phone.
- Request for Online Purchasing – California requested the ability to allow CalFresh recipients to use their benefits at online retailers including Walmart and Amazon. The USDA approved this request 4.8.2020, and CA plans to implement it in May.
These temporary changes will help the hundreds of thousands of Californians who have found themselves in need in the past few weeks get access to the food they need to survive this crisis and the Food Bank applauds them. However, there is still more to be done.
Action Needed: Contact your Members of Congress (House and Senate) and urge them to support Speaker Pelosi and Democratic Leader Schumer in putting SNAP among the priority programs for any COVID-19 package. Ask for:
- 15% increase in food stamps benefits
- An increase in the minimum benefit from $16 to $30
Need help finding your Members of Congress? Use this tool, which provides the phone numbers and social media accounts for Senators and Representatives by state and zip code.
San Francisco-Marin Food Bank Opposes Federal Rule Change that Will Take Food from ~755,000 Americans
Today, the United States Department of Agriculture finalized a rule change that will result in significant cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly food stamps and known as CalFresh in California). SNAP is a vital anti-hunger safety net, helping low-income residents make ends meet in high-cost areas like San Francisco and Marin. Currently, over 64,000 San Francisco residents and nearly 10,000 Marin residents receive monthly SNAP/CalFresh nutrition benefits to help meet their basic food needs. This rule change jeopardizes the health and well-being of some of our most vulnerable neighbors by imposing arbitrary and harmful time limitations on nutrition assistance. Simply put, this rule change will result in some 755,000 people losing SNAP benefits, exacerbating hunger across our state and throughout our communities.
Rule Targets People Unable to Secure Sufficient Employment
This change will punish workers who are struggling to find steady employment by taking away their food assistance, which won’t help them find a better job or find work faster. Imagine your last job search. Now imagine doing it on an empty stomach and no idea how you will pay for your next meal. It harms vulnerable people by denying them food benefits at a time when they most need it, and it does not result in increased employment and earnings. The people targeted by this change already face multiple barriers to work, including limited access to adequate transportation and affordable housing, criminal records that impact job eligibility, and undiagnosed physical and mental illnesses.
Food Bank Remains Steadfast in Commitment to Provide Food for All
The publication of this rule comes despite the passage of the 2018 Farm Bill, which had strong bipartisan support and explicitly rejected these cuts to the SNAP program. The Administration’s publication of this rule goes against Congressional intent, our mission as a food bank, and our shared belief that no one deserves to go hungry in America. The San Francisco-Marin Food Bank remains committed to working to end hunger in our service area.
While published today, the rule is not yet in effect and is pending a 60-day waiting period. The rules, however, have not changed – and individuals impacted should continue using benefits as usual. We urge CalFresh clients and community members who are concerned about the impact of this change to call our CalFresh hotline at 415-767-5220 or visit sfmfoodbank.org.
Every day, our staff helps working parents, seniors, and adults with disabilities apply for the federal food stamp benefits they need to make ends meet. That’s why we are we are deeply troubled by yet another attempt by the Trump Administration to take direct aim at our country’s most important and effective anti-hunger program, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly Food Stamps; now called CalFresh in California).
Existing Policy Supports Working Families
This newest attack on the food stamps program targets a policy called Broad-Based Categorical Eligibility. This policy lets states adopt less restrictive requirements for household assets – so families, seniors, and adults with disabilities can see modest increases in income and savings without losing their food stamps benefits. The Administration calls this a “loophole” that permits those with higher incomes and assets to get public assistance who don’t necessarily need it. But research from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities finds that the policy actually helps support low-income, working families by preventing them from falling off the “benefit cliff” as their income rises slightly and allows them to start saving for the future.
Hunger Would Spike for 3 Million Americans
By changing the way states determine who qualifies for SNAP, the administration would effectively kick more than 3 million people – including thousands in San Francisco and Marin – off the SNAP program – basically telling these millions of vulnerable people that they’ll soon have to look elsewhere for vital nutrition every month. This attack joins earlier proposals from the Administration to slash benefits for unemployed and underemployed adults, make massive cuts to the program in the federal budget, and move the goal line by arbitrarily changing the way poverty is calculated. This is a coordinated attempt to erode our social safety net, and will succeed only creating a poorer and hungrier nation by denying Americans the assistance they need to lead healthy, productive lives.
Join Us and Fight Back
The San Francisco-Marin Food Bank remains firmly committed to using our voice to elevate the importance of nutrition programs like SNAP which are a lifeline to our neighbors in need. Please stand with us and raise your voice in opposition to this proposal.
Our Policy & Advocacy team is comprised of two data specialists, which sets us up perfectly to understand and effectively advocate for changes to systems that directly impact hungry Californians. We have been lending our expertise as part of an alliance of advocates advising the state on an upcoming change to how human services program data is managed. We have written a White Paper based on our research to share data-driven recommendations with leadership at the California Department of Social Services.
We love this stuff, but it can get pretty wonky, so we’re here to help break it down for you!
California has three separate data systems to support the health and human services programs that serve more than 13 million Californians. Called “Statewide Automated Welfare Systems” (SAWS), these data systems are used primarily at the county level to handle enrollment and eligibility for several programs, including CalFresh (food stamps, also known as SNAP).
Having three distinct systems has resulted in inconsistent data, inefficient data access, and wide variability in the ability of counties to analyze the data they have. This has a direct impact on the experience of people applying for health and human services benefits like CalFresh. These challenges play a role in California’s terrible CalFresh participation rate – we rank 4th worst in the nation, and dead last among seniors. (Only 21% of eligible seniors currently get CalFresh!)
The Solution: From Three Systems to One by 2023
In 2012, the Federal Nutrition Service mandated that California start to move toward a single SAWS system by the end of 2020. In response, the state has begun the complex process of migrating these three SAWS into one centralized system, referred to as “CalSAWS.” The goal is to transition all 58 counties into the new CalSAWS system by 2023.
This undertaking, which will cost more than a billion dollars, offers an unprecedented opportunity to examine the strengths and limitations of the current SAWS to optimize the new system to best serve California’s most vulnerable individuals and households.
Food Bank Advocates at the Table
Starting in 2018, our Policy & Advocacy team has worked closely with other advocates to advise the state agencies responsible for this transition. We are fighting for a CalSAWS system that makes life easier for people applying for or already participating in human services programs, as well as for the workers who help them access the programs they need. Our goal is to ensure that CalSAWS supports an efficient and user-friendly CalFresh program that can continuously improve on program participation and consumer experience over time.
In practice, this can mean that a working person seeking CalFresh could now be able to call into a contact center that could call her back when there was a long wait time, rather than having to wait on the line for her required interview. We know that the enrollment process can be burdensome, and people get discouraged at many stages throughout the process. Our hope is that an integrated CalSAWS system will take down some of those barriers to participation by putting the human experience at the center of the development.
Research to Drive Improvement
To support this goal, we developed a white paper outlining the essential components for a strong CalSAWS data system. The paper hones in on three key areas we want California Department of Social Services to prioritize in this process:
- Support county and state program staff in identifying opportunities for increased efficiencies for both clients and eligibility workers,
- Allow sufficient time and resources for analysis of the effectiveness and uniformity of implementation of policies and procedures,
- Identify inequities in outcomes across populations since CalFresh access has historically been particularly burdensome for seniors, non-English Speakers, and the working poor.
To read more our detailed recommendations for improving data systems that support CalFresh program improvement, download the white paper.
If you’re interested in learning more about the work of our Policy & Advocacy team, sign up for our mailing list to get Advocacy Alerts so you can help us spread our message at critical moments. You can also stay engaged and get instant updates by following us on Twitter at @SFMFoodBank and @SFMFB_Advocacy
Photo: Jeremiah Carter
Acknowledgements: Research support from Claudia Page, Consultant
Thousands of CalFresh (food stamp) recipients in our community are at risk of losing their benefits and going hungry. We need your help to protest proposed changes for SNAP/food stamp eligibility.
YOUR VOICE MATTERS
Will you take a moment right now to join us and voice your opposition to this harmful proposal? We only have until April 2nd to step up and protect our neighbors before the rule can be considered final. By adding your opposition to the Federal Register, you’re letting the government know that you won’t support a rule that will increase hunger and poverty in your community.
This proposal would punish workers who are struggling to find steady employment by taking away their food assistance, which won’t help them find a better job or find work faster. Imagine your last job search. Now imagine doing it on an empty stomach and no idea how you will pay for your next meal.
UNEMPLOYED AND UNDER-EMPLOYED NEIGHBORS AT RISK
The USDA recently announced a proposed rule that would cut off SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) benefits for people who are struggling to find steady work. Regardless of how hard they are looking for work or how few jobs that match their skill sets exist in their area, they could become ineligible for SNAP- after just three months – if they are deemed “able-bodied working adults.”
“I have a job, but my boss cut my hours and I barely had enough money to make my rent. CalFresh allowed me to eat regularly over the past six months, and I wouldn’t have been able to survive without it.”
CalFresh can often be part of the solution to helping people who are in between jobs by helping them take care of a basic need like food while they are looking for work. In fact, more than 80 percent of participants are working in the year before or after receiving the benefit, which suggests that it’s helping them stay afloat when they hit hard times.