Policymakers Take Steps to Improve Food Security, but Opportunities to Address Hunger Remain

State policymakers have recently taken several important steps to expand access to CalFresh food assistance for California families, but opportunities to address high levels of poverty and hunger in the Golden State remain.

More than 15 percent of California households struggle to afford enough food, even several years after the Great Recession officially ended. And it is especially troubling that more than one-quarter of California children are food insecure. Many administrative decisions that can expand CalFresh eligibility, increase participation, or simplify enrollment are made at the state level, presenting policymakers with the opportunity to make investments and other policy choices that yield broadly shared benefits to California communities. CalFresh benefits, which are 100 percent federally funded, are spent locally at grocery stores and farmers markets. Researchers have found that $1 spent on benefits generates about $1.80 in economic activity during difficult economic times.

Given the significant unmet need for — and the broad benefits of — CalFresh food assistance, it is fortunate (as we blogged about earlier) that policymakers took important steps during the recent budget deliberations to expand eligibility.

For example, the 2014-15 state budget creates a new, state-funded energy assistance program that avoids harsh CalFresh benefit cuts that otherwise would have resulted from the new federal Farm Bill. The Farm Bill imposed restrictions on state “Heat and Eat” policies, which increase benefits to households who also receive federal energy assistance. More than 300,000 California households would have lost an average of $62 per month, or about one-third of the average household benefit amount. This $10 million state investment will keep $300 million in federal funds flowing to California to be spent on families’ most basic needs.

The 2014-15 budget agreement also helps more low-income families qualify for CalFresh by increasing the gross income limit to 200 percent of the federal poverty line. This change takes advantage of the federal option known as “broad-based categorical eligibility.” Households will still need a net income — their gross income minus expenses like housing and child care — at or below 100 percent of the poverty line, or $19,790 for a family of three, in order to receive CalFresh food assistance. Taking advantage of broad-based categorical eligibility removes a significant barrier for families who are working, but spend large shares of their income on basic needs, leaving too few dollars in their budgets to provide an adequate diet.

Further, the budget agreement repeals the lifetime ban from CalFresh — as well as from CalWORKs — for Californians with certain drug felony convictions. California now joins 21 other states in opting out of the federal policy creating this lifetime ban, inaugurated as part of welfare reform in the mid-1990s. The state Senate estimates this change will benefit 20,000 Californians directly.

Other Policy Options Left on the Table

While the state has made progress in maintaining or expanding access to critical food assistance, several policy options — which would especially help children and students — remain on the table.

California is tied for dead last among states for overall CalFresh participation, and has the lowest participation rate among eligible working families. Streamlining enrollment processes would lower barriers to participation and ease potential sources of confusion during difficult times for families. These families would also benefit from investments in meals their children are served in the child care and development system.

Some potential policy options include:

o   Reinvesting in nutrition assistance for early childhood education programs. The federal government reimburses child-care providers for nutritious meals and snacks served to low-income children. Recognizing higher food costs in the state, California has contributed state funding to this reimbursement. Yet over the last three years, nearly all of the state’s share has been cut. During the recent budget deliberations, the Assembly proposed a $10 million state reinvestment in early childhood nutrition, modestly increasing reimbursements. The 2014-15 budget agreement did not include this restoration, which would have provided an added incentive for child-care providers to serve nutritious meals.

o   Streamlining eligibility for community college students. Federal law limits CalFresh eligibility for college students, who are generally required to work at least 20 hours per week or be enrolled in a work training program to qualify. This presents a barrier for nontraditional students who do not rely on their parents for support. Assembly Bill 1930 would allow more community college students to qualify for CalFresh by considering participation in EOPS — Extended Opportunities Programs and Services — as work training. This policy change could help more than 70,000 low-income students afford sufficient food and thus be better able to concentrate on their studies. The bill will be heard in the Senate Appropriations Committee in August.

o   Aligning Medi-Cal and CalFresh eligibility. State policymakers have already begun to more closely align programs for health coverage and food assistance, both in recognition of the close relationship between nutrition and health and in an effort to increase efficiency. For example, more than 90 percent of individuals eligible for CalFresh are also eligible for Medi-Cal. Senate Bill 1002 would allow households to renew their eligibility for Medi-Cal and CalFresh at the same time and would help families to more easily maintain benefits and reduce needless paperwork. SB 1002 will be heard in the Senate Appropriations Committee in August.

Food security is a key component of family well-being. CalFresh food assistance provides broad benefits to low-income families and their children and to local communities. State policymakers took several vital steps to expand eligibility to vulnerable populations in the recent budget deliberations. There is more work to be done to help families make ends meet in the aftermath of the Great Recession.

— Miranda Everitt