In summary

From emergency food assistance to the USDA approach to school meals, we need to change to more efficient and sustainable policies.

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By Courtney McKinney, Special to CalMatters

Courtney McKinney is the director of Communications for Western Center on Law & Poverty, a California anti-poverty organization,

It’s a new era in the White House, which means potential for dramatic change in how this country is run. In the wake of the pandemic and more Americans waking up to the systemic racism inherent in America, we have an unprecedented opportunity to change how we move forward.

Over the past few years, anti-hunger advocates across the United States, including Western Center on Law & Poverty, fought against the Trump administration’s attempts to scale back food assistance via rule changes to SNAP, what was known as the food stamps program. Attempts ranged from cutting SNAP for adults who can’t find a job – the “ABAWD” rule – to denying emergency food assistance to the poorest Americans during the pandemic, to making it harder for people to access and retain food assistance, to ignoring variations in utility costs between states as a way to cut recipients from benefits.

Most rule changes were either defeated in court or withdrawn. The Biden administration has already announced its intention to shore up SNAP in important ways. They’ve moved to pay out retroactive pandemic food assistance that includes kids up to 6, and they are considering extending additional emergency allotments to the clients and millions of others who were represented by the Western Center on Law & Poverty and the Impact Fund in a lawsuit against USDA last year.

We’re glad to see the intentions of the Biden administration and to have a vice president with a history of working to expand food access. Now we have set our sights on follow-through, and more substantial and permanent progress. The close calls of the past few years highlight the fundamental instability of this country’s food assistance programs, and the need for bolder, more innovative action to ensure no one in this country goes hungry.

California, the wealthiest state in the nation and one of the country’s largest food producers, is seeing record levels of hunger during the pandemic – about 10 million Californians, or 1 in 4, are food insecure. The case of California matters because of its significant influence in Washington, D.C., its size and percent of the U.S. population, and because it’s an example of how hunger permeates even the most progressive states. 

Efforts are being made to provide emergency assistance, but much of it leaves out immigrant communities, many of whom are farmworkers – the backbone of California and U.S. agriculture – who stand in long lines so they can get something to eat.

Western Center is co-sponsoring Assembly Bill 221 to provide emergency food assistance that includes immigrant communities. Gov. Gavin Newsom vetoed a similar bill last year citing cost, even though the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office announced a multibillion-dollar surplus months later due to the gains of California’s wealthy. Passing AB 221 is necessary, but like most of the work done to keep people afloat during the pandemic, it needs to serve as a foundation to build from, rather than a temporary stop gap that goes away when the pandemic is done.

The potential of the Biden administration’s US Department of Agriculture lies not just with SNAP, it can also have a significant impact on climate change and keeping kids healthier with school meals. Between greenhouse gas emissions from meat production and how the USDA deals with land management and wildfires, we can’t overlook the role of USDA in addressing the devastating effects of changing climates. That dovetails with the outdated way USDA funds school meal programs, which requires schools to purchase from its commodity program, even when districts have access to an abundance of healthier, locally sourced food, like many in California.

It’s time for USDA to shift the way it approaches food, agriculture and surrounding ecosystems by ending piecemeal, outdated policies and turning toward policies that are inclusive, highly accessible and more efficient.

It’s a new administration. We hope that means a brighter future, but we can’t assume. The work starts now.

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