Political Notebook

Central California Food Bank braces for shutdown cuts that may impact hundreds of thousands

As the shutdown of the federal government drags on with little prospects for resolution, the Central California Food Bank has begun preparations for a worst-case scenario: the loss of food stamp funding that would send tens of thousands of recipients rushing to its door for immediate help.

CEO Andy Souza said his staff started preparations this week for possible cuts in SNAP – Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, known as CalFresh in California and more commonly referred to as food stamps.

The food bank serves more than 280,000 residents in Madera, Fresno, Kings, Tulare and Kern counties each month.

“If SNAP stops, people will come to us,” Souza said. “We have to brace ourselves and our partner agencies as to what that could look like and mean.”

According to CalFresh, about 544,000 people received SNAP benefits in this five-county area in February 2018.

Souza said a disruption in SNAP could send an influx of people to the food bank in a fashion similar to what would be seen during a natural disaster, in that possibly tens of thousands could need help in a matter of days. This differs from previous emergencies such as the Great Recession and California’s recent drought, which each saw a gradual increase in food bank service requests.

Central California Food Bank warehouse supervisor Joe Espinosa sorts donated bread products, Wednesday Jan. 9, 2019. The food bank is preparing for possible cuts to the nation’s hunger programs should the federal government shutdown continue into March. JOHN WALKER jwalker@fresnobee.com

Tuesday, the Trump administration said SNAP would get funding through February, at least.

The SNAP problems came to a head in Washington this week, after House Democrats sent a letter on Tuesday to Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue demanding an explanation as to how he would keep SNAP afloat during the shutdown. Current funding was due to dry up by the end of January.

On Tuesday night, the U.S. Department of Agriculture issued a statement saying it would use a stipulation in a recently expired congressional continuing resolution to fund SNAP benefits until the end of February. Children’s nutritional programs within SNAP are funded through March.

The statement also criticized the “inability of Congress to pass an appropriations bill that safely secures our borders.”

President Donald Trump’s administration, which includes the USDA, and House Democratic leaders have been at an impasse for weeks over Trump’s demand that any appropriations bill include funding for a U.S.-Mexico border wall. The two sides illustrated the stalemate through dueling TV addresses, also held on Tuesday night.

According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, SNAP provides an average of $125 per person and $245 per household to about 38 million people and 19 million U.S. households. Families with the greatest need typically receive the most benefits.

The House Committee on Appropriations estimated the Food and Nutrition Service, the USDA agency in charge of SNAP, would have to cut about 40 percent of SNAP benefits at the end of January should the shutdown continue.

It’s this forecast that has spurred local organizations like the food bank into action.

Central California Food Bank employee Jose Vidal inventories boxes of food, Wednesday Jan. 9, 2019. The food bank is preparing for possible cuts to the nation’s hunger programs should the federal government shutdown continue into March. JOHN WALKER jwalker@fresnobee.com

Souza described an “all-hands” approach in which the food bank will seek aid from the community through donations, as well as its partner organizations in the charity, nonprofit and governmental agency realms.

The food bank also relies on a number of partnerships with local farmers, who themselves face a myriad of problems associated with the shutdown such as a lack of tariff relief and cuts to key USDA programs.

Despite a far-reaching and deserved reputation as the country’s agricultural hub, the central San Joaquin Valley contains some of the nation’s highest concentrations of food insecurity. More than one in four Tulare County residents receive CalFresh benefits, and Fresno is typically at or near the top in national food insecurity studies of metropolitan areas.

Souza said it was his understanding that all – not the 40 percent cited by the House Appropriations Committee – SNAP benefits would be cut once the funding dried out.

There’s no specific plan in place yet, Souza said, as his staff is still gathering data on all of the possibilities. Anyone wishing to help may donate at the food bank’s website, ccfoodbank.org, where a $1 donation can fund up to seven meals.

Rory Appleton is a fourth-generation Fresnan who covers politics for his hometown newspaper. A Fresno State graduate, he has won six first-place California News Publishers Association awards and a McClatchy President’s Award for his reporting and column writing over the last two years.