Money has run out for fruits and vegetables for low-income Californians. Elected leaders are silent.

The fresh food rebate pilot program delivered on its promises, but politicians won’t pledge to put it in the budget.

By George B. Sánchez-Tello, Capital & Main

This story is produced by the award-winning journalism nonprofit Capital & Main and co-published here with permission.

More than 50 people stood dressed in jackets and hats against the heavy spring wind outside the Mother’s Nutritional Center grocery store in El Monte on the morning of April 12. People started lining up an hour before the store’s 9 a.m. opening time, and so many showed up that when the doors opened, only five customers at a time were allowed in.

Every morning that week was the same: A crowd gathered outside the store before it opened. The low-income residents who had qualified for public food assistance were able to get rebates on fruits and vegetables, which could be used to buy more food.

But the money for the rebate program — CalFresh Fruit and Vegetable EBT Pilot — had run out in about five months at grocery stores in Southern California, and word got out that it was to end on April 14, or Sunday of that week. The people wanted to stock up while they could still afford to do so. (EBT stands for “electronic benefits transfer,” the method by which benefits are awarded through a debit-style card.)

The day before, in a hearing of the Senate Budget Subcommittee on Health and Human Services in Sacramento, a representative from the California Department of Social Services told California Sen. Caroline Menjivar that funding would end on April 14. Menjivar, who chairs the committee, asked a single question — whether the state has the infrastructure to restart the program sometime in the future — before the committee moved on to another issue.

As chair of the subcommittee, Menjivar could have recommended changes to the state budget and arranged for a subcommittee vote on the issue before passing it on to the Senate Budget Committee to prioritize funding for the pilot program. Menjivar is a Democrat who represents Burbank and much of the San Fernando Valley, where six Mother’s Nutritional Center stores were part of the pilot program.

But it seemed that she accepted the program’s expiration for now.

When contacted after the hearing by Capital & Main about the pilot program’s future, Menjivar’s press secretary Celeste Jale responded via email that the senator had no comment on the matter.

Menjivar is one of nine politicians who could save the model program. The others are Gov. Gavin Newsom, Assembly Speaker Robert Rivas (D-Salinas), Senate President Pro Tem Mike McGuire (D-North Coast), Senate Minority Leader Brian Jones (R-San Diego), Assembly Minority Leader James Gallagher (R-Yuba City), Senate Budget Chair Scott D. Wiener (D-San Francisco), Assembly Budget Chair Jesse Gabriel (D-Encino) and Assembly Budget Subcommittee Chair on Human Services Corey Jackson (D-Moreno Valley). Most declined to comment; the others did not respond at all. All could speak up for an effective intervention against food insecurity and the very people whose health improved from the program. But they won’t.

More than 92,900 households got rebates totaling $10.5 million through the program, according to Jennifer Young, who works for California’s Office of Technology and Solutions Integration in the Health and Human Services Agency.

Managers at markets such as Mother’s Nutritional Center, the largest market in the program, saw low-income residents purchase more healthy food and change their diets under the program. Customers have told Capital & Main that the program’s support allowed them to manage chronic illnesses such as diabetes and to introduce healthy food choices to their children.

All of this happened during the program’s 14-month span, from February 2023 to April 14. Because it was an experimental program, the pilot’s $18.65 million budget was a fraction of the $347.75 million advocates initially sought, according to San Francisco Bay Area Planning and Urban Research Association, or SPUR. Continuous funding was disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

In March, the last full month of funding, 55,000 households comprising roughly 95,000 people benefited from an average of $46 a month in rebates — a total of $2.5 million in extra money for fruit and vegetables, according to SPUR, which helped manage the program.

The nine elected officials named above have the most influence on the budget process. The so-called “Big Five” of the governor, the leaders of the Assembly and Senate and the minority leaders of both houses can intervene when legislators cannot reach a majority.

All nine of the lawmakers either did not respond or declined to comment to Capital & Main. Newsom’s office sent an email saying that he does not “typically comment on pending legislation.”

Assemblymember Alex Lee, a Democrat whose district includes Fremont and Newark, sent a letter on March 5 to the Assembly Committee on Human Services asking for a $30 million one-time allocation from next year’s budget to fund the program in the 2024-’25 fiscal year. He earlier said in an interview that the program was an excellent way to get food to the people who need it the most.

Not commenting to the media during a budget cycle is standard practice among lawmakers. Policy experts and advocates who work directly with the Legislature said elected officials typically keep quiet because they don’t want to get locked into positions that will limit them in negotiations: As in a card game, they don’t want to show their hands too soon. Keeping others guessing can leverage bargain and support.

Observing others’ moves often indicates their choices or options. Legislators feel they need to trade different budget items as bargaining chips. Politicians often make demands in return for their vote. If their position is known, they lose that leverage. But even the experts who told me this would not speak on the record. They said speaking publicly could harm their own work with politicians and relationships with staff.

But food should not be a bargaining chip. This isn’t a game. Effective programs that ensure food for those who need it the most should be the standard in California. Such programs should not be a luxury in a flush budget year that is expendable in a deficit year and otherwise a showpiece in the election cycle.  

Sam Barragan, the district manager for Mother’s Nutritional Center in El Monte, said he saw the pilot program work. Barragan said he has faith elected officials will fund it again.

In May, Theresa Mier, a spokesperson at the California Department of Social Services, and H.D. Palmer, deputy director for external affairs for the Department of Finance, confirmed that there was no funding for the CalFresh Fruit and Vegetable EBT Pilot in the governor’s May budget revision.

Advocates anticipated this, but lawmakers have only a month, or until the state’s budget is finalized, to fund and renew the CalFresh Fruits and Vegetable EBT Pilot.

Food security is not ensured with faith, but food. The pilot program saw most of its money go directly to Californians to improve their health. Its success showed it could likely grow beyond initial pilot markets. Elected officials who can make a difference won’t speak up for it. For now, with no funding, the program is dead. The silence from those responsible for its death is itself a statement that food for public health is negotiable.

Copyright 2024 Capital & Main.

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