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“Food insecurity” is a public health crisis in Los Angeles County, but many immigrant families are afraid to sign up for help, county officials said recently in proclaiming May as CalFresh Awareness Month.

“Hunger is an issue that affects us all,” said Sheryl Spiller, director of the Department of Public Social Services. “We all know someone who is experiencing difficulties purchasing food for themselves or their family.”

“Food insecurity” refers to the lack of reliable access to a sufficient quantity of affordable, nutritious food. The department’s latest report on hunger, “Rising Food Insecurity in Los Angeles County” described the problem as a “major public health issue that has reached crisis proportions.”

Researchers say hunger not only negatively impacts the intellectual, physical and emotional development of children, but places them at greater risk for obesity, diabetes and other diseases.

Advocates said many families in need are unaware that they may qualify for CalFresh, a federally funded benefit to help them pay for food. Others worry about the stigma of using what were once called “food stamps.”

Many others mistakenly fear that applying for CalFresh will hurt their chances of becoming a permanent U.S. citizen. Under long-standing immigration law, an individual who is likely to become a “public charge,” or primarily dependent on the government for subsistence, can be ineligible for admission to the country and subject to deportation.

DPSS is joining community partners countywide—including local farmers’ markets, food banks, school districts and faith-based organizations—in a monthlong campaign to let low-income families and individuals know that help is available.

“This collaboration represents an intense effort to serve those most vulnerable in the county,” Spiller said.