Half of Angelenos who received CalFresh benefits were still food insecure after the end of pandemic-era benefit increases.
LOS ANGELES (KABC) -- Rising grocery prices over the last few years and an end to pandemic-era public food program boosts have made it hard for many in Southern California to afford food for their families, experts say.
About one in three households in Los Angeles County are food insecure, meaning they don't have access to enough food to live an active, healthy life, according to research from the University of Southern California.
CalFresh is California's food assistance program, known nationally as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP.
Among families receiving CalFresh benefits, half were still food insecure in July 2023, in spite of the benefits. That's compared to about a third in December 2022.
"The benefits are just not enough to meet people's food needs right now," USC researcher Dr. Kayla de la Haye said.
De la Haye is the director of USC's Institute for Food System Equity. She said part of this rise in food insecurity is due to the end of COVID-era boosts to benefits.
In December 2022, for example, the average Los Angeles County family received $470 a month in CalFresh benefits. That dropped to $299 in July 2023, USC's research shows.
"The pandemic EBT, and all these other kind of safety net benefits, they're going away or have gone away. And it's really left families in need," Joe Prickitt, the director of the UC San Diego Center for Community Health said.
Prickitt is one of the leaders of a state-run project called the Calfresh Fruit & Vegetable EBT Pilot Project, where for every $1 a participant spends on fresh fruits and vegetables, they receive $1 back on their EBT card to spend on food at any other retailer that accepts CalFresh benefits, up to $60 a month.
Mother's Nutritional Center, a specialty store catering to those on food assistance programs, is participating in the pilot project across nearly 80 of its locations, along with a handful of other retailers in California.
Sylvia Baruch is a shopper at Mother's Nutritional Center.
"I am a diabetic, and so is my husband. And I see ourselves eating more fruits and vegetables because of this program," Baruch said.
De la Haye, from USC, said programs like these can help people afford healthy food that they might not otherwise be able to pay for.
"A lot of the families we talk to, if they're on a really tight food budget they really worry about non shelf, staple food. So, if they're taking their kids on the bus to go get groceries, and they really only can do that once a week or something they're gonna get foods that aren't gonna expire. And there's just a lot of barriers to getting fruits and vegetables," de la Haye said.
Additionally, an ABC7 analysis of USDA data found that in lower-income zip codes the number of retailers accepting CalFresh benefits has dropped about 15% over the last 10 years, compared to an increase of more than 20% in higher-income zip codes.
As of the end of last year, there are also fewer options per CalFresh household in lower-income areas: About 15 retailers per 1,000 households receiving CalFresh benefits, compared to nearly double the rate higher-income areas.
Though, de la Haye pointed out that looking at the rate of CalFresh/SNAP retailers compared to the entire population (not just CalFresh families) actually shows overall more retailers per household. That's because many low-income areas are also urban environments with retail stores.
Research from USC looking at four East Los Angeles neighborhoods shows most households still have at least six EBT retailers within a 15-minute walk, but there are still areas with fewer options.
"If you look granularly and look at where are the clusters of households that don't have good access? Many of those clusters are in low-income areas," de la Haye said.
De la Haye also said her team at USC has interviewed a lot of residents in Los Angeles County who talk about not having the time or even a car to go to multiple stores to find food that is affordable or aligned with their cultural preferences.
"They also talk a lot about quality. Like, if the store on the corner has some foods but it's a convenience store, and the fruit and vegetables there are a week old, and it's not the quality that you want for your family," she said.
Shameel Hilliard is also a customer at Mother's Nutritional Center and a single mom of two who is currently in culinary school. She said she's grateful for the program.
"My son, he's five, he just started kindergarten, which is very precious to mom. So, as you see all these fruits and vegetables [are] very important for me to get that in his system. It keeps him going," Hilliard said.
Her hope for programs like the CalFresh Fruit & Vegetable EBT Pilot Project, "is for them to get more stores. And to get more programs like this nationally."
A sentiment that Prickitt echoed.
"What we're hoping is, is that this model would be emulated and be able to be utilized across the country, across the United States, and certainly for many years to come. Because we know that there's a need," Prickitt said.