By Hannah Arionus

Hunger is a symptom and manifestation of the larger systemic issues of poverty, lack of affordable housing, and income insecurity. Solving systemic problems requires a multi-system approach. An ever evolving recipe of resources from government assistant programs, nonprofit support, and community resources must work together to meet needs within local communities.This work is a delicate balance that encourages a private and public sector collaboration to support those in need. Maintaining the relationship between private and public efforts is key as a shift in one can have significant impacts on those in need.

During the Covid-19 pandemic, the federal government set into motion emergency assistance programs to aid individuals and families facing financial insecurity. Providing rent support and increased CalFresh funds (or what is federally referred to as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, SNAP) allowed much needed breathing room for individuals and families to make ends meet without compromising their nutrition and health. On average, the temporary COVID increase to SNAP provided an additional $90 in monthly benefits. (Source: Feeding America:) These additional funds not only benefited local economies, they also  assisted in meeting basic needs during a time of high inflation. For each dollar in federally funded SNAP benefits, $1.79 is generated in economic activity. (Source: Food Research & Action Center)

The emergency assistance programs and increase of SNAP benefits ended in March 2023 even as rates of inflation continued to soar and food costs remained at an all time high. In 2023, the US Department of Agriculture is predicting food prices to increase by 7.4 percent with food-at-home prices (such as groceries) increasing 7.8 percent. These increases come in the wake of the 11.4 percentage increase we saw in the price of food-at-home in 2022. (Source: USDA) Impacts on price increases vary but many of these increases can be attributed to continued supply chain issues, increase in labor and production costs, and outbreaks of influenza amongst livestock.

Millions of Americans are actively receiving assistance from local food banks and government programs. In fall 2021, 3.7 million households participated in at least one government nutrition program such as CalFresh, WIC, or school meals. Despite such high numbers of participation, the Public Policy Institute of California reports one in ten (roughly 1.4 million) Californians still lack sufficient resources to meet their food needs. (Source: PPIC) With CalFresh benefits decreasing to “pre-pandemic levels” the number of individuals without sufficient resources is expected to increase, putting pressure on nonprofits and community resources to fill the gap.

Poverty not only affects accessibility to physical resources, the emotional and mental toll it has can be equally as devastating. Creating programs that respect a person’s autonomy meet holistic health needs by restoring confidence and faith in oneself. In 2019, Open Heart Kitchen set into action a strategic plan intended to innovate expanded programs that increased capacity and focused on partnerships and advocacy. The initiative of these programs is to not only meet the needs of the clients we serve, but also give them the opportunity to once again become self-reliant. In the same way, programs like SNAP gives individuals and families the freedom to shop for groceries and care for themselves. This, in turn, restores a sense of independence and dignity, both of which are fundamental human rights. By limiting funds, the impact and success of these government programs to provide this level of holistic assistance is also limited.

Our organization recognizes that temporary programs, such as increased SNAP benefits due to the Covid-19 pandemic, cannot remedy the deep seeded issues of poverty and inequality within our society. For legislatures to remove these programs without a transition or long-term solution ignores the millions of individuals and families impacted by such a decision, many of whom will see a loss of hundreds of dollars of much needed assistance per month, forcing them to choose between paying basic bills, such as rent and utilities, or buying groceries. This fluctuation between dignity and devastation cannot be allowed to persist. To truly end hunger within our community, we can not settle for temporary solutions and emergency relief. We must work together to restore a well-balanced recipe of solutions between government programs, nonprofit assistance, and community resources.