'From $260 to $23': Californians navigate the end of pandemic food benefit boosts
For the past few months, Heidi Bergdahl has been stockpiling food.
Bergdahl, who receives a Social Security check every month, knew she would lose the pandemic-era boost to her CalFresh benefits in April. She was anticipating they’d go from the $260 a month she had been getting, back down to her pre-pandemic $23 a month, so she started preparing.
“My freezer is full,” she said. “Using that pandemic money, I have been buying meat, so my protein is set.”
At least twice a month, Bergdahl, 56, and her service dog Opal ride her electric scooter half a mile to Arcade Church, where the Sacramento Food Bank distributes boxes of dry pantry goods, produce and a protein source to hundreds of people.
The food bank has become a lifeline for Bergdahl and so many others in the area. The organization used to feed 150,000 people each month, but since the pandemic started, that number has steadily grown. Now, with the end of pandemic-era boosts, it is feeding about 300,000 individuals a month. With summer and school vacation looming, students will no longer have access to free or reduced price meals, and demand at the food bank is expected to grow.
Scouring for deals, buying in bulk
Bergdahl says receiving the additional money during the pandemic changed how she shopped.
“I stuck to my neighborhood store,” she said. “I didn't have to go outside my local neighborhood. But now I'm probably going to have to start hitting Grocery Outlet and Walmart, you know, looking at all the deals and the prices.”
She said $23 doesn’t go nearly as far as it did before the pandemic. Where she shops, green onions are now $1.69, where they used to be 69 cents. Bergdahl’s annual income is below $25,000, or around $2,000 a month. With rent and prescription prices increasing, she said she’s taking all the help she can find.
Inflation hit a 40-year high last year, and households are still feeling the crunch of high prices.
Kevin Buffalino is Director of Communications for the Sacramento Food Bank & Family Services. He says the food bank is under strain, too.
“Yes, we buy in bulk, [and] we get some wholesale pricing from manufacturers, distributors, producers, but we are also seeing our prices significantly increase as well,” he said.
Buffalino said in its 47 year history, the food bank has only ever fed over 300,000 people three times: Twice in the fall of 2020 and in March of this year. In April 2023, they fed 280,000 people, which was still a steep increase from this time last year, when 223,000 were served.
Not everyone is going to the food bank
Citrus Heights resident Tom McSpeddan, 69, was happy to begin getting an extra $211 a month when the pandemic started. He said he’d been subsisting on a $70 monthly benefit OK, but the boost gave him more breathing room. Toward the end, due to record inflation, he said he needed all the money to get sufficient groceries for himself.
When the emergency allotments ended, his benefits were reduced to $124 each month.
McSpedden has Type 2 diabetes and said rising prices, for groceries, gas and insulin, eat up his monthly Social Security check.
Still, he said he doesn’t want to use the food bank, because he won’t be able to eat everything in it and doesn’t want to take a box away from a family who will. But McSpeddan said he’s been compromising his diet anyway.
“I'll buy a pound of ham and a loaf of bread and some cheese,” he said. “And that's what I eat all week.”
McSpeddan said he only buys on sale — and healthy food doesn’t go on sale.
Each night, he said he plays with his insulin levels to make sure his blood sugar doesn’t get too high or too low, but knows his diet is unsustainable.
“The way I eat is going to come back and bite me at some point,” he said, “because this is not conducive to what a diabetic should eat.”
Food bank seeks aid, too
Buffalino said he sees cars of all kinds and people of all types come through the food bank line.
“You read a lot about on the news: We're not in a recession, the economy is doing well, the job market’s strong, but we are truthfully on the ground seeing different things,” he said.
Buffalino said his team is trying to help any way they can, including getting people like McSpedden to update their information on CalFresh’s website so they can get benefits that match their situation.
The food bank is also lobbying lawmakers to increase the minimum amount for an individual from $23, like Berghdal’s getting, to $50 a month. Governor Gavin Newsom didn’t include that request in his recently revised state budget, announced last week. That budget includes a nearly $32 billion deficit.
However, Newsom’s spending plan did preserve a $60 million grant for food banks to purchase and distribute California-grown food. It also included a number of other investments in future years that would expand food access for children and undocumented residents and address benefit theft.
The state legislature and the Newsom Administration will be in budget negotiations for the next few weeks, ahead of the new fiscal year that begins July 1.
The food bank is also pushing for a slate of 15 anti-hunger and anti-poverty bills to be passed in the legislature this year.
On a national level, food access could be cut even further, if Congress moves to enact stricter work requirements to qualify for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, as a compromise for raising the debt ceiling.
Food banks widely denounced that proposal when it was revealed in April, pointing to unprecedented strain on the current system.
Food assistance resources:
- More information about the end to CalFresh emergency allotments
- Who qualifies for CalFresh and where to go to get food from the food bank
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