Does California provide enough food aid for the hungry?

Your guide to California policy and politics
Lynn La BY Lynn La August 8, 2023
Presented by Dairy Cares, Southern California Gas Company, Climate-Smart Agricultural Partnership and Politifest 2023

Does California provide enough food aid for the hungry?

“A catastrophic hunger crisis.” That’s the dire warning from the California Association of Food Banks, after federal pandemic food aid ended earlier this spring. 

But why does a state with so much food — California produces nearly half the country’s fruits and vegetables — and that spends so much on food aid have so many residents still going hungry?

It’s a question CalMatters’ California Divide reporter Jeanne Kuang, data reporter Jeremia Kimelman and politics intern Rya Jetha explore in our latest explainer — on food insecurity and hunger in California.

About 1 in 5 Californians experience food insecurity, otherwise known as having limited or uncertain access to adequate food. Besides being at a higher risk for hunger, children with inconsistent access to food can experience developmental delays and are more likely to get sick and be hospitalized. In adults, food insecurity can lead to chronic illness and depression

And the situation may not improve anytime soon. In addition to the end of federal food aid, inflation drove up food prices 4.5% last year, and some experts warn that food-insecure Californians will rise far beyond 20% in 2023

In the explainer, you’ll learn more about:

The food insecurity rate in your county: California is one of only 10 states that use a county-based system to distribute the aid. Using our interactive, you can guess what percentage of your neighbors are food insecure and compare data to other counties. In Los Angeles County, for example, the California Association of Food Banks estimates that 31% of people do not have enough to eat.

The scope of California’s food aid program: It’s no surprise that the pandemic caused a dramatic rise in CalFresh enrollment rates. In May 2021, during the pandemic, the average Californian enrolled in CalFresh received $214 a month in food stamps. Two years later, the average CalFresh recipient gets $179. Learn more about how CalFresh benefits work and why some of California’s most vulnerable areas — such as the curious case of Yolo County, which has the state’s highest poverty rate — have populations that aren’t eligible for food aid.

What solutions are being tried: Besides pushing for more funding and a new law that seeks federal waivers so that recipients can buy hot and prepared foods, there are a few other innovative ideas floating around to reduce hunger in California — including pilot programs where doctors prescribe patients more fruits and veggies.

Explainers like this one on hunger have long been central to CalMatters’ mission to break down complex issues in an interactive and easy-to-read format.

In recent months, we’ve provided deep reporting and insightful data to explain the forces behind the fentanyl epidemic and the debate over reparations for Black residents.

You can look at all our explainers here.


CalMatters is growing: Our nonprofit newsroom is adding staffers to fulfill our mission to inform Californians. We have several new job openings, including for an economy reporter, a tech reporter and a state Capitol reporter (in partnership with Voice of San Diego) who focuses on San Diego and the Inland Empire. See all our opportunities and apply here.

Training the next generation: CalMatters has eight summer interns who are working across the organization, including in editorial, photography, membership and development. Read more about this stellar group from our engagement team.


1 Keeping contraband out of prisons

Guard towers outside of Kern Valley State Prison on Nov. 15, 2022. Photo by Larry Valenzuela, CalMatters/CatchLight Local
Guard towers outside of Kern Valley State Prison on Nov. 15, 2022. Photo by Larry Valenzuela, CalMatters/CatchLight Local

While using drones is one outlandish way to sneak contraband into prisons, one more common way to get drugs, phones and other prohibited items behind bars is having visitors mule them inside.

But a proposed rule change that may empower correctional officers to perform strip searches more often is getting pushback from critics who argue that the policy would discourage family members and loved ones of inmates from visiting altogether, writes CalMatters’ criminal justice intern Anabel Sosa.

Compelled by a January 2023 audit by the inspector general, which faulted the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation for not doing more to stop drugs, the department has put forward a proposal to update Form 888, which is required to be filled out to each visitor who consents to an unclothed search. If they don’t consent, family members can be barred from visits. Department spokesperson Alia Cruz said the changes would work to “include clarity and consistency with existing language” and that the search process “will remain unchanged.”

  • Cruz, in a statement to CalMatters: “Unclothed searches are completely voluntary unless a search warrant is presented. Unclothed searches are used very sparingly, and only when all other contraband interdiction efforts have been exhausted.”

But advocates say the measure includes language that would make it much easier for an officer to request a search, as it lowers the threshold from “probable cause” to “reasonable suspicion.”

For visitors who have gone through a strip search, the process can be an invasive and dehumanizing experience.

  • Renee Espinoza, describing a visit to see her husband at Centinela Prison: The correctional officer “was asking me to spread my genitals wider. And I’m just like, ‘there’s nothing in there!’ How much wider do you need me to open? How much lower do you need me to bend? What else do you need me to do?”

The rule change would come at a time during Gov. Newsom’s campaign for prison reforms. Besides closing a handful of prisons in the state and signing a law that would keep prisoners geographically close to their families, the governor announced in March that San Quentin Prison would shift its focus to rehabilitation. (Though a recent CalMatters’ investigation found that a multi-million rehabilitation program operated with little oversight.)

The department is expected to hold a public hearing on Wednesday. If the Office of Administrative Law approves, the department wants to enact the policy immediately.

2 Labor solidarity in strikes

Members of the the Domestic Workers Alliance join the actors and writers strike at the Warner Brothers Studio in Burbank, on July 19, 2023. Photo by Zaydee Sanchez for CalMatters
Members of the the Domestic Workers Alliance join the actors and writers strike at the Warner Brothers Studio in Burbank, on July 19, 2023. Photo by Zaydee Sanchez for CalMatters

Call it the summer of labor solidarity.

Much has been written about the wave of strikes occurring across California: So far in 2023, 53 labor strikes have started, involving roughly 276,000 participants. (For comparison, in all of 2021 there were 52 strikes total, with about 64,800 participants.)

So what is it about these strikes that have enabled these protests to not only endure through the sweltering summer heat, but also, at times, grow in number? As Alejandra Reyes-Velarde of CalMatters’ California Divide team explains, a big part of the answer is across-class solidarity. Across the state, housekeepers, actors, delivery drivers and others are standing behind one another for better pay and benefits.

  • Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher, head of the California Labor Federation: “There’s staggering solidarity. I think it’s in levels we haven’t seen before. If you look at the difference between what a fast food worker makes and a writer makes, it’s smaller than the difference between what either of them makes and their CEO.”

But it’s unclear if such organizing efforts will equal success for all labor unions, experts say. While UPS reached a tentative five-year deal in late July to avoid the largest work stoppage in decades, Friday’s meeting between Hollywood writers and studio executives did not result in much progress.

Hotels impacted by the hospitality workers strike in southern California say the union, Unite Here Local 11, is not bargaining in good faith, but the union says its members are being roughed up by hotel security. 

As negotiations continue, another group is throwing its support behind unions — Democratic officials. Recognizing the voting and financial influence that labor groups wield, some lawmakers publicly tweet their support, attend events or march alongside union members. Some high-profile examples include:


CalMatters Commentary

CalMatters columnist Dan Walters: Bills before the Legislature would make it more difficult for the public and the media to find out what California’s politicians and bureaucrats are doing.

Taxing streaming services like cable TV would be terrible for California consumers, writes Mike Montgomery, executive director of CALinnovates, a nonpartisan technology advocacy coalition.


Other things worth your time

Some stories may require a subscription to read

3 killed in collision of firefighting helicopters in Riverside County // Los Angeles Times

PG&E faces questions on wildfire prevention shift from tree trimming to grid tech // The Mercury News

Schools grapple with potty training in transitional kindergarten // Los Angeles Times

Union pushing to cap hospital CEO pay accused of playing politics // California Healthline

Fast food industry has spent $4 million so far fighting liability bill // The Sacramento Bee

New law triggers surge of lawsuits alleging prison sexual assault // San Bernardino Sun

Critics pan state for threatening Stanford professor over breach of contract // EdSource

Why are women more concerned about climate change than men? // The Orange County Register

How CA’s rising insurance premiums threaten affordable housing // KQED

Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s long fight over control of late husband’s estate // The New York Times

Julie Su’s status as acting labor secretary gets watchdog review // Bloomberg Law

See you tomorrow


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