Food Banks Work To Prevent Hunger Crisis While CalFresh Recipients Struggle After Emergency Allotments End

Since the U.S. government ended pandemic-related emergency allotments in March, some 93,000 households in San Mateo and Santa Clara County have had their food subsidies slashed, triggering a sharp increase in people seeking donations from food banks.

At the same time, inflation is making it more expensive for food banks to purchase food, while their financial support is declining due to a drop in individual donations and the expiration of pandemic-related government support.

“We’re very worried right now because the arrows are all going in different directions: support going down and need going up,” said Tracy Weatherby, vice president of Strategy and Advocacy at Second Harvest of Silicon Valley.

“This cut [in CalFresh benefits] is a really huge impact to our community,” Weatherby said. “The only solution that people who were losing this money were provided by, either the state or our counties, was “Go to your local food bank’”.

CalFresh, federally known as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), is California’s largest food program. It gives people money on an EBT card that they can spend on food. The benefits are paid by the federal government, overseen by the state, and administered by the counties.

To support low-income families during the pandemic, the federal government gave everyone the full allotment for their family size or an additional $95 for families who already received the maximum benefit. For a single-person household, the full allotment is currently $281 per month. If they received the minimum benefit of $23, this meant a boost of $258 per month to $281 during the pandemic.

In states with emergency allotments, the additional food benefits reduced poverty by around 10% in the fourth quarter of 2021, a study by the think tank Urban Institute shows.

While CalFresh benefits are now back to pre-pandemic level, food prices have increased by almost 18% in the past two years.

Even before the recent cuts in CalFresh benefits, it has been challenging for people in California to qualify for food assistance because it works off federal costs of living and federal poverty limits. California is the third most expensive state in the country, but the eligibility criteria for CalFresh food stamps, such as income limits, apply nationwide.

“Federal poverty limits are an unfortunate reality of Federal Public Benefits,” said Roseann Berthron-Arechiga from the Social Services Agency in Santa Clara County that administers CalFresh. “The limits are the same whether you live in an area where the cost of living is high or where it is lower.”

Carlos Barbosa is one of millions of Californians who experienced the cuts in benefits. His CalFresh benefits were cut from $281 to the pre-pandemic level of $23 per month. Barbosa now depends more on free food provided by food pantries.

“It makes me kind of embarrassed that I can’t do what I want, but I need help,” said Barbosa, 70, who is retired and has received CalFresh since 2018. “I need that assistance that helps me a lot to survive.”

He explained that the additional allotments made him less limited in his grocery shopping and allowed him to afford foods like a “nice steak”. Now he can only afford it if he saves his CalFresh money for several months.

Another Bay Area resident and CalFresh recipient, who spoke on condition of anonymity because she is well-known in her community for her volunteer services, echoed what Barbosa said. “I had food in my pantry and in the freezer,” she said. “I had Easter like everybody else, I had Christmas like everybody else.”

Second Harvest of Silicon Valley is the main food supplier of many local food distributions in San Mateo and Santa Clara County. It cooperates with 400 local partners, including the drive-through food pantry of the River of Life Foundation in Santa Clara. Sam Loh, president of the Foundation, speaks of a “dramatic increase in the last couple of months.”

“People that were off from the CalFresh program, they’re coming here to pick up food for their families,” Loh said.

To make things harder for food banks, at the same time they experienced greater numbers of people coming in for food, food pantries’ allotments from food banks have decreased.

“We used to get chicken, milk and eggs from Second Harvest [every week],” said Boon Tan, who directs the food pantry in Santa Clara. “Now they can only give it to us every alternate week. One week, we have chicken but no eggs and milk, and the other we have eggs and milk but no chicken.”

Weatherby from Second Harvest of Silicon Valley explained this with increasing prices for food and freight that equally impact food banks. In addition to soaring food prices, individual donations, which are the main source of revenue for Second Harvest, have dropped by 9% due to uncertain economic developments, according to Weatherby.

Looking forward, Weatherby hopes for an increased minimum food benefit of $50 per month in California, around double the current minimum allowance. She also said that “cities and counties need to stay in the game” to support the community with their food needs.

An increase in food benefits and a stronger involvement by the government seems unlikely in the light of the current debt ceiling deal that would place stricter work requirements on older Americans to receive food assistance. As part of the debt ceiling agreement, adults who are 54 and younger must work or participate in a training program for at least 80 hours a month to receive food stamps for extended periods of time, the New York Times wrote. Currently, these work requirements apply to adults ages 49 and younger.

“We really need to have that strong government safety net of support, and then we can be the backup emergency food system,” Weatherby said about food banks.


  • Hannah Freitag

    Hannah holds a bachelor's degree in social science from Humboldt-University in Berlin, Germany. She is passionate about society and politics and chose social science to be a journalist who reports knowledgeable about sociopolitical topics. Hannah worked at Humboldt University as a research assistant to enhance her data science skills and be able to write data-driven stories. Her interest in international politics brought her for half a year to the EU's capital - Brussels - where she interned at the central press office of the European Commission. She supported the digital economy and innovation team in various press announcements and communications about policy proposals by the Commission. In her free time, Hannah enjoys spending active time outside in the nature and discovering new places. At other times, she likes to sing, play the piano or saxophone.

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