Assembly Bill 323, authored by Assemblyman Marc Berman, was signed by Gov. Jerry Brown on Monday, July 17, allowing counties to connect CalFresh applicants to emergency food providers through a referral from a 2-1-1 service. The new law is Berman's first bill signed in the state Legislature.
CalFresh assists low-income households in purchasing the food they need at grocery stores. Berman, D-Palo Alto, said that state residents often won't apply for CalFresh until they hit their lowest point, but the application can take up to 30 days to be approved.
Counties are required to have a list of food banks or pantries that residents can use to obtain food, according to Berman. However, the list was not the most convenient way to provide options for help.
"What my bill does is say that, instead of having a physical list, counties can refer that person to this phone number — 2-1-1 — which is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, in 150 different languages to direct them to the quickest and nearest food pantry so that they can get food support while they're waiting for their application to get approved," he said.
In 2015, more than 110,000 residents of Santa Clara County were signed up for CalFresh, according to statistics the Lucile Packard Foundation for Children's Health program Kidsdata collected from the state Department of Social Services.
Berman believes that the issue of food security is on the rise, especially in the Bay Area as the cost of living continues to increase.
"It's that much more important that we get people connected with the services that exist as quickly as possible and as easy as possible as people find themselves unexpectedly starving," he said.
As of 2016, about 1 in 5 children in California go hungry, according to the Western Center on Law and Poverty (WCLP), which helped Berman develop the bill.
"With a country with as much wealth as we have, nobody in our country should be hungry. Hunger is an indignity, it's inhumane, it's something that we wouldn't wish on anybody. In fact, it should be something that we're all fighting against," WCLP Policy Advocate Jessica Bartholow said.
Bartholow added that the benefits of CalFresh and this bill were staggering.
"For every billion dollars that our state spends on CalFresh and for every billion dollars we spend on school meals, those are dollars that create jobs, that support California's agricultural workers and they help make sure that children who are growing up in poverty don't get stuck there," Bartholow said.
Many emergency food providers, such as Ecumenical Hunger Program in East Palo Alto, operate on a referral basis. Program Supervisor LaKesha Evans said that any communication about food banks would be positive.
"We always encourage the sharing of information and the sharing of resources. It would be fantastic if counties could take the time to inform applicants," she said.
Ultimately, timely access to nutritional aid is imperative for CalFresh recipients, Berman said in a press release.
"AB 323 takes a meaningful step towards curbing hunger by employing technology to immediately refer individuals and families to reliable food providers," he said.