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Santa Barbara Food Bank says CalFresh changes, high prices and storms add to food insecurity

Food from the Santa Maria Food Bank is distributed to farmworker locations affected by winter storms.
Beth Thornton
Food from the Santa Maria warehouse is distributed to farmworker locations affected by winter storms.

CalFresh COVID benefits ended in March, and thousands of households in Santa Barbara County are affected by the change. Recent storms have added to the challenges for agricultural workers.

CalFresh is a supplemental nutrition assistance program that provides monthly grocery money to low-income families. It’s part of the federal program called SNAP. In 2020, the government began to issue additional benefits to program recipients during the pandemic, but those extra allotments ended in March.

Erik Talkin is CEO of the Foodbank of Santa Barbara County.

“Currently in Santa Barbara County there are 32,000 households who will be affected by this cut in SNAP benefits,” he said.

Talkin said when you combine reduced benefits with the significant increase in the price of food, it’s a challenging time for families.

“We know during the month of April there’s going to be a very significant increase in the need for our services, so what we’ve been doing is purchasing a lot more food,” he said.

And, if you add the impact of recent storms to the equation, Talkin said people who work in agriculture are facing additional hurdles like flood damage and loss of income.

Monica Buenrostro is the Community Programs Supervisor at the Santa Maria location. She said the Foodbank already had a farmworker program in place, but since the storms, numbers have gone up.

“When we go out to the farmworker sites, we do see a lot of increase in numbers and that’s because they’re not working,” she said.

Buenrostro said pallets of food are transported each week to large agricultural sites in the local area where about 400 farmworkers need food as they wait to get back to work.

“We’re able to give them fresh produce and they have pasta and beans and all of the food they need to make a meal for their family,” she said.

Erik Talkin said the Foodbank’s farmworker program is active in all areas of the county from Guadalupe to Carpinteria.

“We rely so much on the farmworkers to produce the food for us that we need to be able to help them for doing that for us,” he said.

The Foodbank, he said, is working to respond as efficiently as possible to the many factors impacting people’s lives right now.

“The ending of the benefit, the increase in the price of food and then our local situation of the storms – the three of those together really are bad news for food security,” Talkin said.

He said the additional allotments issued to CalFresh recipients for the last couple of years made a significant difference in lowering rates of childhood poverty. Although the benefits have ended, Talkin said it showed that alleviating hunger is within our grasp.

“All across America, it was discovered that childhood poverty went down dramatically during that period, just as a result of these added benefits. It’s a very powerful message, I think, to send out to lawmakers of all persuasions across the country,” he said.

You can find more information at FoodBanksbc.org.

Beth Thornton is a freelance reporter for KCBX, and a contributor to Issues & Ideas. She was a 2021 Data Fellow with the USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism, and has contributed to KQED's statewide radio show The California Report.