The good news is that it has never been easier to get food support in Los Angeles County. The bad news is that although about 3 million people are eligible for food assistance here, only 1.3 million have taken advantage of the program locally.

County leaders said food insecurity began rising locally at the beginning of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, so even more than one year later, it is vital that residents know what benefits are available and how to access them. Families are encouraged to apply for benefits from both the WIC and CalFresh programs that can help residents in need stretch their food dollars.

The goal is to make sure that no one goes hungry in LA County. Nutrition, specifically nutrient-dense foods like fresh fruits and vegetables are critical, officials said.

The topic of rising food insecurity and free food resources for community members was discussed during a recent Ethnic Media Services panel on July 26. The group said It is important to note expanding eligibility requirements have made it easier for millions of people to qualify for long-term food assistance.

“I’m proud of the way Los Angeles County has stepped up to protect our most vulnerable residents,” said Supervisor Hilda L. Solis, who represents the first district of Los Angeles County.

Food Insecurity

“The communities more disproportionately affected by this are low-income and communities of color,” said Dr. Kayla de la Haye, Professor of Preventive Medicine at the University of Southern California.

De la Haye helped lead the USC-LA County Food Insecurity Strategic Partnership. A subsequent study found that between April to December 2020, one in three L.A. County households experienced food insecurity. That’s an estimated 1.2 million households, which is a much higher rate of food insecurity than is normally seen in L.A. County.

Food insecurity is defined as disruptions in being able to access food, disruptions in regular eating because of limited money or other resources for food. Researchers said most of the time, food insecurity is often associated with hunger and poor nutrition but it also leads to many negative physical and mental health outcomes in children and adults.

Currently, food insecurity rates are higher than pre-pandemic levels, researchers said. The majority of people who have experienced food insecurity during the pandemic were also low-income. Researchers said at the peak of the pandemic, the rate of food insecurity amongst Black and Brown people was about 40 percent, which is double compared to White people at 21 percent.

So not only are low-income and communities of color being hit the hardest in terms of the coronavirus and job losses, but the pandemic is worsening food insecurities and this can also have a negative impact on the health of these communities.

Meanwhile, de la Haye said families who receive CalFresh resources are 20 percent more likely to transition from food insecurity to food security without government help.

Other issues center around food deserts in urban areas, where neighborhoods don’t have a supermarket within a half-mile or even further from their homes.

However, county officials know food insecurity and access to quality healthcare go hand-in-hand.

“We’re still very much in the pandemic in LA County,” said Solis. “That’s why we’re bringing vaccines to our communities and doing it in partnership with food distributions.”

WIC Benefits

The panel also addressed the recent relaxing of public-charge rules, which have restricted many immigrants from accessing food support and other government benefits. For example, the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) does not fall under public charge, meaning that anyone who meets income eligibility requirements can qualify regardless of immigration status.

“In LA County, 66 percent of babies qualify for the WIC program,” said Kiran Saluja, executive director of the PHFE WIC program, which is under Haluna Health. “A family of four that makes 4,000 dollars a month, qualifies for WIC.

“We never ask about immigration status.”

WIC leaders said residents can be approved by case managers within 24 hours, so mothers can begin shopping with their WIC benefits the day after applying. Meanwhile, WIC currently has more than 40,000 openings in Los Angeles County.

“WIC is not a handout, it is a hand up,” Saluja said. “Today’s WIC is a modern WIC.”

To apply, text APPLY to 91997 or visit www.phfewic.org/apply or call (888) 942-2229.

CalFresh

CalFresh is another critical resource that was used more last year.

“It was a 179 percent increase. The need for CalFresh is well documented,” said LaShonda Diggs, Division Chief of the LA County Department of Public Social Services.

Diggs said there are many benefits to CalFresh that apply to homeless individuals and college students. She added that CalFresh benefits have been temporarily increased by 15 percent until the end of September. That means families will have more money to buy more food for the rest of the summer, as the pandemic continues in LA County.

Meanwhile, county leaders know residents can be leery when it comes to receiving public benefits. They want people to know, there’s no shame involved and that long-term resources are available.

“I know that we have a long way to go but we’re here for the long haul,” Solis said. “This resource is available to all that qualify.”

“Please let families know that we are here to help,” said Rigo Reyes, the director of the Los Angeles County Office of Immigrant Affairs.

Reyes said immigrant families with children who were born in the United States will be eligible for benefits. He added that receiving those benefits will not affect parents’ immigration status and no one will come knocking on their door because their family is now receiving CalFresh.

“Immigrants should not self exclude,” Reyes continued. “We don’t collect immigration status.”

“We are not even allowed to share data with each other even though that could help families,” Saluja added. “Very strict laws and rules.”

Researchers recommended continued investment in the emergency and government food programs, given the ongoing need, and that efforts are increased to enroll eligible people into these programs. Experts believe this will help all low-income communities access the food they need.

Applications, which should take about ten minutes to fill out, are available at getcalfresh.org or by calling (866) 613-3777, Monday through Friday from 7:30 a.m. – 7:30 p.m. and on Saturday from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Even if applicants are unsure of their eligibility, they should still apply for CalFresh because many residents will be approved under various exceptions.