Gavin Newsom wants to open public food benefits to some undocumented Californians

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Gov. Gavin Newsom has proposed extending public food assistance programs to undocumented immigrants ages 55 and over, a move advocates say is the first step in curbing food insecurity for millions of low-income Californians.

The plan, which is included in Newsom’s $286 billion state budget proposal, would allocate about $35 million to expand CalFresh eligibility, among other food assistance benefits, to all low-income residents ages 55 and over regardless of immigration status.

Currently, all undocumented people are ineligible for CalFresh benefits. Only certain low-income immigrants that have lived in the U.S. for at least five years, including those admitted for humanitarian reasons and those with permanent residence, may be eligible for the benefits. Immigrants who receive disability-related assistance or benefits and children under 18 years old with permanent residency are also eligible, regardless of their entry date.

State officials, advocates and community leaders in a Jan. 13 virtual press conference called the proposal a historic move in ensuring equitable food access for all California residents.

“This is the first major step towards making food access in California equitable,” said state Senator Melissa Hurtado, D-Sanger, who in 2021 authored SB 464, known as the Food for All or Comida Para Todos Act. “We know that food insecurity touches many lives.”

California is home to nearly 11 million immigrants, representing a quarter of the foreign-born population nationwide. About 2 million are estimated to be undocumented, according to the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California.

Proposal would extend food aid to older undocumented Californians

Hurtado said programs like CalFresh and the California Food Assistance Program have been crucial in reducing hunger, improving health, and lifting people out of poverty. Each year between 2013 and 2017, CalFresh kept 828,000 people out of poverty in California, including 418,000 children, she said.

CalFresh, known federally as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP, provides low-income families with monthly food benefits. The California Food Assistance Program provides food stamps to “qualified non-citizens” who do not currently qualify for federal benefits.

The pandemic has had an unequal toll on California’s undocumented population and only made food assistance programs even more necessary for food-insecure immigrant families, she added.

An estimated 852,065 immigrants lost their jobs during the spring of 2020, including 357,867 undocumented workers, according to a June 2020 policy report from the UC Merced Community and Labor Center.

Researchers found the job loss rate in California was 22.2% for Latinos, 17.8% for Blacks, 17.2% for Asians, and 9.9% for non-Hispanic whites. But the job loss rate was highest for non-citizen immigrant women, who experienced a 36.3% job loss rate in California and a 23.7% job loss rate in the rest of the country, according to the report.

“As COVID-19 has made clear, the needs of our immigrant communities cannot be overlooked,” Hurtado said. “We must ensure that California has food for all and we must remember that food means much more than just food. It means safety and it represents the connections we have among our communities.”

Natalie Caples, co-CEO of the Central California Food Bank, looks over fresh produce packed in the food bank’s warehouse in Fresno on Monday, June 8, 2020.
Natalie Caples, co-CEO of the Central California Food Bank, looks over fresh produce packed in the food bank’s warehouse in Fresno on Monday, June 8, 2020.

The governor’s proposal would provide assistance to hundreds of thousands of immigrants in the Central Valley, where many farmworkers lack access to fresh and healthy food and face other challenges caused by climate change, Hurtado said.

“We also know that climate change and continued population growth is expected to worsen and it’s also expected to worsen our food security challenges,” she said. “These impacts will continue to denigrate Californians’ quality of life, as well as increase food insecurity among vulnerable communities.”

Sarah Dar, director of health and public benefits policy at the California Immigrant Policy Center, said too many people are excluded from programs that can help families “stay afloat during difficult times.” She said more needs to be done to reduce barriers for undocumented families to access nutrition assistance programs and other benefits like federal stimulus checks and unemployment insurance.

The Legislative Analyst’s Office in 2021 estimated there were between 1.2 and 1.6 million low-income California residents that meet the CalFresh eligibility requirements but cannot apply due to their immigration status.

“In order to build a stronger, more resilient state, one that values the dignity and health of all its residents, California must do more to ensure that every single person and family - without exception - has access to nutritious food,” Dar said.

Republican state Sen. Andreas Borgeas, Assemblymember Devon Mathis, R-Porterville, and Assemblymember Jim Patterson, R-Fresno, could not be reached for comment Thursday.

Fresno-area families would benefit from CalFresh expansion

In Fresno County, about 14.7% of all residents were considered food insecure, according to 2019 data from Feeding America, a national nonprofit comprising more than 200 food banks. In neighboring Valley counties, including Kings, Tulare, Merced, Mariposa and Madera, the food insecurity rate fell between 12.6% and 15.6%, the data showed.

Robin Allen-Maddox, who is the communications manager at the Central California Food Bank, said the organization is already helping 38,000 Californians in the Central Valley who are considered qualified immigrants. She said the “expanded funding could help additional seniors,” but wouldn’t change the food bank’s daily operations when it comes to outreach and education on CalFresh benefits.

“For us, nothing changes in terms of the day-to-day CalFresh outreach work we do,” she said. “We will continue to fill the gaps in need for food relief on college campuses, with seniors, and with families who are still struggling from the impacts of Covid.”

Herling Isela Garcia is an immigrant from Honduras and a mother of three who lives in the small city of Lindsay, in Tulare County. In December 2020, her entire family contracted COVID-19. They had to quarantine at home and her husband couldn’t go to work, making it harder for them to pay for rent, food bills and other expenses.

“It was very painful to tell my daughters that we had no food, but it was even more heartbreaking to tell them that I couldn’t give her something as simple as a glass of milk,” Garcia said in Spanish. “I know Food for All would benefit families like mine who have mixed immigration statuses and who are struggling due to the pandemic and the economy.”

Hurtado, whose district spans Fresno, Kings, Tulare and Kern counties, said she will continue to advocate for public benefit programs that can provide food assistance to all undocumented people. She hopes to build off of Newsom’s proposal and expand access to include other undocumented immigrants such as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals recipients and Temporary Protected Status holders.

“Food prices are at an all-time high and food security continues to worsen for all,” she added. “I will continue to fight to ensure that California becomes a state where there is truly food for all.”

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