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‘Must Have’ Immigrant Workers Going Hungry in California


GUEST COMMENTARY - For 11 years, Adela has labored in the vineyards of table and raisin grapes that surround Fowler, in California’s Central Valley. 

The single mother of three boys — ages 18, 13 and 9 — was able to scrape by, just barely, by leaving each day around 4 a.m. and returning home some 12 hours later. When times were particularly tight, her kids chipped in as well, returning with her to the fields in the late afternoon for several more hours of work, where they clipped and laid out grapes in the sun to dry into raisins.

“They all know how to work,” Adela, 43, said of her sons. (She did not want her last name used because she is undocumented). “They’ve helped me a lot.”

For Adela, a member of the United Farm Workers Foundation, the pandemic didn’t bring about any dramatic changes at work. She continued to show up for her long shifts, now donning a mask. Still, she contracted COVID-19 from a coworker in the summer of 2020 while her children were visiting relatives in Mexico.

“When I arrived at the hospital I didn’t have a pulse,” she said. She was intubated for a week, spent a month in the hospital and recovered at home for another month before returning to the fields.  

Now, despite her dedication, Adela is finding it harder and harder to get work in the fields, a situation she blames on growers converting their grape fields to almonds, whose harvest requires less manual labor. In April, when she spoke to Capital & Main, Adela was growing increasingly desperate. She had been out of work for two months. What little savings she had was disappearing quickly and she was facing a crisis. 

“This month it’s been very hard to find food for me and my kids,” she said. Her children, who are U.S. citizens, receive CalFresh, the state’s version of the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), otherwise known as food stamps. Adela, however, is barred from the program because of her undocumented status. That morning she had traveled to a food bank and received two cartons of eggs along with tortillas, potatoes and milk. She was grateful for the items, but knew the reprieve would be temporary.

“When there’s no work, you have to stretch everything,” she said between tears. “And the truth is, it isn’t enough.”

It was with workers like Adela in mind that activists launched the Food4All campaign last year, which seeks to expand CalFresh to low-income undocumented immigrants.

“We want to bring equity to the nutritional safety net,” said Betzabel Estudillo of Nourish California, which is leading the campaign in partnership with the California Immigrant Policy Center (CIPC). “The pandemic has shed a light on immigrants who do not have the ability to purchase food, yet have been on the front lines, whether working in grocery stores or agriculture, to make sure that other people are fed.” 

A just-published report by Nourish California and CIPC, which used statewide survey data collected from the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research from 2017 to 2020, found that 45% of undocumented immigrants in California are affected by food insecurity. Among children under 18, the rate is even higher, at 64% — meaning that nearly two out of every three undocumented children are food insecure. 

The Center for Migration Studies has found that 74% of undocumented immigrants are essential workers — the individuals who staffed nursing homes, restaurants, construction sites and more, even as multiple waves of COVID-19 swept the nation. Their immigration status has meant that they were unable to receive support through the CARES Act and were banned from federal safety-net programs like food stamps and Medicaid.

Even before the pandemic, California began to take steps to expand safety-net programs to the undocumented. In 2019, the state opened up Medi-Cal to undocumented youth, and in May will expand access to adults 50 years of age and older, with plans to eventually cover the remaining age groups. 

The Food4All campaign received a boost in January, when Gov. Gavin Newsom announced his 2022–23 budget would allocate $35 million to expand CalFresh to low-income undocumented immigrants ages 55 and older following the template set by the Medi-Cal rollout. The funding would go to the California Food Assistance Program (CFAP), created in the wake of the 1996 welfare reform bill, which had stripped food stamps from permanent legal residents who had resided in the country for less than five years. CFAP currently provides CalFresh to 35,000 green card holders ineligible for federally funded food assistance, and would be the vehicle through which the state could eventually offer CalFresh to all low-income undocumented immigrants. 

Although advocates like Estudillo support the expansion of the program to older undocumented immigrants, they are pushing for the elimination of age restrictions and are pursuing a two-pronged approach through the legislative and budget process, with Senate Bill 464 introduced by Senator Melisa Hurtado (D-Sanger) and a budget proposal by Assemblymember Miguel Santiago (D-Los Angeles). Estudillo said that the bill was unlikely to move this year, and so the current focus is on the budget request, with the hope that they can successfully move the governor to include additional funds in his June budget.

Among the most passionate supporters of Food4All are the state’s food banks, which have struggled to meet the demands of rising food insecurity throughout the pandemic. “Right now, we are serving over 50,000 households every week, which is about a fifty percent increase from before the pandemic,” said Meg Davidson, the director of policy and advocacy at the San Francisco-Marin Food Bank. The food bank recently surveyed 7,000 participants, and more than 80% reported that they had not recovered from the economic impact of COVID. “We have not seen the need wane at all,” said Davidson. “People are not back to normal yet.”

Davidson pointed out that data has consistently shown Latino families experience food insecurity at twice the rate of whites, which she said makes Food4All a crucial method to close the food security gap. “These are people who risked their lives to provide services that we all relied upon. We feel it’s unjust and a disservice to their contributions that they could be excluded from food assistance when they are in their time of need.”

From Fowler, Adela echoed the sentiment. “We are working hard to make sure everyone else has enough to eat, including politicians and governors. But at home we don’t have enough to even feed ourselves.” 

(Gabriel Thompson is a writer for Capital & Main where this article was featured.)