The Trump administration's proposed budget for next year could bring major slashes in funding and tighter regulations to one of the largest food assistance programs in the country that tens of thousands in Merced County depend on.
The Supplemental Food Nutrition Program (SNAP), known as CalFresh in California and formerly known as food stamps, allows about 54,000 people in Merced County a monthly budget for groceries, ranging from meats, fresh fruits and vegetables, bread, ice cream and more.
In the president’s proposed budget for the 2019 federal fiscal year released this week, nearly 30 percent of the program funding could be decreased over the span of 10 years, according to the California Budget & Policy Center, an independent organization focused on analyzing how policies affect low and middle income families in the state.
The proposed budget cuts about $213 billion from the program, which would create more gaps in food sources for low-income people across the county and country, said Esi Hutchful, state policy fellow for the California Budget & Policy Center.
People in Merced County rely on SNAP to meet their needs and slicing the funding will put a bigger burden on organizations like food banks and food pantries, said Bill Gibbs, executive director of the Merced County Food Bank.
“We’re already strapped to meet the current unmet needs,” Gibbs said. “Reducing money is going to create bigger needs we’re not going to be able to absorb.”
In Los Banos about 7,800 people are on CalFresh and about about 24,500 people in Merced utilize the program, according to data from the Merced County Human Services Agency.
The types of food and the way CalFresh recipients receive their food could also change if the budget proposal is passed by congress.
As of now, SNAP recipients receive EBT cards that are loaded with money each month to purchase groceries. The administration proposed to get rid of that method, and instead give some families a box of food with things like pasta, peanut butter, beans, ready-to-eat cereal, canned fruits and vegetables.
Fresh fruits and vegetables wouldn't be included in the package, which is seen as a disservice to SNAP recipients by food and health officials in Merced County. Local authorities have made an effort to make fresh produce more accessible to low income communities. The food bank made all their produce free and the health department piloted a program that puts locally grown produce in small markets and liquor stores.
“From the public health perspective it is extremely important to allow families to purchase from local grocery stores and not be limited to canned vegetables,” said Stephanie Nathan, program manager at the Merced County Department of Public Health.
In Merced County It’s harder for low income residents to find affordable produce compared to people with middle or high incomes, the Merced County 2016 Community Health Assessment reports.
Eating fresh fruits and vegetables “helps maintain a healthy weight and in turn helps prevent diabetes, heart disease and high blood pressure,” said Stephanie Russell, supervising health educator for the Merced County Department of Public Health.
Mercey Springs Produce, a small market off of Highway 152 in Dos Palos that sells fruits vegetables, honey and nuts, started accepting EBT as payment about a year and a half ago because of the demand in people who depend on that monthly money, said the market owner, Daniel Torres.
“EBT does help with sales,” Torres said, adding that before they accepted EBT as payment people would often stop by the market and leave once they realized they couldn’t use their cards.
Right now people are able to shop for foods that meet the dietary or allergy needs for their family, Hutchful said, and are able “to buy healthier food for themselves with the same autonomy and dignity everyone else is able to do so.”
“Under this proposal all of that choice, freedom and dignity is taken away,” Hutchful added. “That introduces stigma, shame and costs to families.”
Although it is too soon to speculate whether the proposed changes to CalFresh will be passed, there’s enough information to have some concerns about the proposal, said Scott Pettygrove, director of the Merced County Human Services Agency. One concern being the proposed administrative cuts and making the application process harder and more complicated for people.
“There’s not enough to speculate exactly what it would do,” Pettygrove said. If passed, the changes could “possibly” eliminate people from the program but that’s still “speculative” at this point.
“Whether or not all of these proposals would actually come to the final budget we don’t know,” Hutchful said. “But a budget you put forth is an indication of your priorities and philosophies.”
Monica Velez: 209-385-2486, @monicavelez21