In the southern swath of Santa Clara County, winter’s short days and blustery cold have taken their toll on its famous farmland. Fields that just a couple of months ago offered a bounty of lettuce, tomatoes and strawberries are picked over, and mostly dormant.
The lean season has arrived, and this year it may be felt more acutely inside hundreds of local homes where residents already struggle to find enough to eat.
One in four county residents—including children, seniors and disabled individuals—will see their monthly government food assistance benefits wiped out early this year now that a new federal rule to alter work requirements for food stamp recipients goes into effect.
“We’ve been looking at what’s coming out and the impacts on our community,” says Joel Campos, head of outreach for Second Harvest Food Bank. “It’s excluding people.”
The so-called “able-bodied” work rule change, which requires food stamp recipients to be employed at least 20 hours per week year-round, targets adults age 18 to 49 and is expected to hit seasonal workers in industries like agriculture and construction particularly hard, Campos says.
It’s also just one of several proposed changes to food stamp programs—known in California as CalFresh—that have tested the county’s social safety net in recent months. Non-profits like the food bank and food justice group Food What?! say that other proposals to increase immigration status checks and alter enrollment rules for those receiving other government benefits are already having a chilling effect.
Nationwide, estimates are that as many as 5 million people could see food stamp benefits reduced or canceled as a result of changes that recently wound their way through the federal bureaucracy. In this county, where 17 percent of children live in poverty, the effects could be dire for residents scrambling to keep up with rising costs of living and stagnant wages. “It’s a huge issue, because food stamps in this county are no different,” says Kayla Kumar, development director of Food What?! “It’s the No. 1 way the government kind of addresses poverty.”
Kind of, Kumar says, because non-profit groups like Food What?!, Mesa Verde Gardens and others already help many residents left behind by government benefit programs grow or buy their own food at reduced rates.
As it stands, some 700,000 Americans could join the ranks of the hungry, since their current monthly nutrition benefits will be denied or discontinued now that the new federal rules are being implemented. Any decrease in federal dollars to support CalFresh, county officials warn, could also have local economic ripple effects. With more local businesses and farmer’s markets now accepting payment by food stamps with EBT cards, cuts would also be passed onto vendors.
More than one in 10 US households ran out of food in 2018, according to federal estimates. While long-term studies have shown that child development, academic performance and adult health can all be negatively impacted by food scarcity, many households who might qualify for government assistance do not apply.
In Santa Clara County, a single person making $2,024 or less per month may be eligible for food assistance; the earnings cap is $4,184 for a family of four. But in an area where minimum hourly wage hits $15 in some cities, each household could gross $2,400 a month at a full-time job and see at least half their earnings go toward housing.
“The No. 1 thing we hear from folks is their whole income goes to their rent and they just don’t have anything left,” says Teresa Ponikvar, Sacred Heart Community Services’ food pantry manager for five years.
Caroline Danielson, policy director and senior fellow with the non-profit Public Policy Institute of California, says costlier places like the South Bay need a different standard for access than the threshold used by the feds to determine safety-net needs.
“The federal poverty line does date back from the 1950s survey of food and the cost of food in family budgets, and essentially it’s three times the cost of a basic food budget and … mainly has been adjusted for inflation since,” she explains. “The downside of that is that food is a lot less expensive for families than housing and medical costs and transportation and child care, and all those things are a lot more expensive, so it’s not a very accurate reflection of how people spend money.”
Still, in an example of what researchers call the “SNAP gap,” it’s rare, even in areas of the county where the majority of residents are low-income, for more than 20 percent of people who are eligible for food benefits to apply for them.
“These rules don’t make any sense on purpose,” Kumar says. “It’s not for lack of education. It’s deliberately confusing.”
One big problem, says Second Harvest’s Campos, is that local residents who have family members with legal temporary US residency or mixed immigration statuses have been increasingly wary of seeking food assistance in the current anti-immigrant political climate. Walk-in traffic for residents inquiring about government assistance at the food bank has already plummeted to about half the usual level, he says, thanks to fear and confusion about the future of food stamps.
“It’s dropping off on the CalFresh program, but that means it increases here at the food bank,” Campos says. “We don’t ask them any questions.”
Second Harvest reports serving 20,000 more people a month compared to a year ago—about 270,000 every 30 days from Daly City to Gilroy.
While Second Harvest focuses on immediate hunger, Food What?! employs dozens of local youth each year to grow food on two plots at UC Santa Cruz and in Watsonville. Participants get to take home a share of produce each week, and the long-term goal is for marginalized communities to build their own sustainable food systems.
“Yes, food stamps are helping as a Band-Aid, but also what food stamps really do is subsidize businesses to pay lower wages,” Kumar says. “We’re more interested in combating poverty directly.”
One example is the non-profit’s new “prescriptive produce” program, where doctors at an affiliated clinic can prescribe vouchers for healthy food to patients struggling with diet-related issues, such as diabetes.
Other ingrained dynamics may be harder to change.
While Santa Clara County routinely ranks highly on national lists for the most expensive places to live, it’s also a hub for low- and middle-wage jobs in hospitality, agriculture and construction with income swings that can be hard to weather. It’s these seasonal workers that stand to be hit especially hard by changes to food stamps.
“Once they stop working, they will start asking them to continue finding work,” he says. “Especially farmworkers; they might be off work five months.”
The irony of locals growing the nation’s food only to be left hungry themselves isn’t lost on Kumar. “It’s a particularly heartbreaking paradox,” Kumar says. “It’s not acceptable.”
Julia Baum’s reporting on food access and food insecurity was undertaken as a USC Center for Health Journalism 2019 California Fellow.