By EMILY MALONEY | June 24, 2020 at 12:00 pm
We are seeing first-hand at Canal Alliance that the coronavirus pandemic and shelter in place (SIP) order has drastically decreased immigrant families’ earnings; in just the first week of SIP, 73% of surveyed clients had already experienced significant income loss, and 50% were already worried about food access. Many residents of the Canal are not only in danger of going hungry, but are also experiencing deep anxiety about how they will feed themselves and their families. In speaking with clients since then, we know that these numbers have only increased since March, which seems to reflect region-wide trends which show that Latinos are being disproportionately impacted by the effects of COVID-19 and SIP policies (Latinos Around the Bay Area Are Disproportionately Affected by COVID-19; Marin County COVID-19 Demographic Data).
The need for food among Canal residents is reflected in the huge spike we’ve seen in attendance at our food pantry; before SIP, we served 225 individuals and families every Tuesday. Now, we are serving up to 500, including delivering food to 100 seniors and more vulnerable clients, and in order to quickly get food to the people who need it, we have waived our requirement that people register with us before attending their first food pantry. The growth in demand for food resources is reflected throughout the county and region; in April, the Marin IJ reported that the demand for food access in Marin had doubled (Marin food pantries face demand surge in pandemic), and in May the County reported a 343% increase in applications for CalFresh benefits (Additional Food Relief Available During COVID-19: Marin HHS registering more vulnerable families for state’s CalFresh program). Across the Bay Area, communities are scrambling to keep up with the need (‘Unprecedented’: Bay Area food banks struggle to meet demand amid coronavirus shutdown; More Californians are hungry, seeking help amid coronavirus job losses).
Throughout the Bay Area, the SIP order and resulting job losses have led many people who have not previously accessed food assistance to visit food pantries (Coronavirus Has Made Tackling Food Insecurity in the Bay Area Far More Difficult). This has certainly been seen in the Canal. Canal Alliance Administrative Manager, Yolanda Oviedo, who has played a critical role in transitioning our weekly food pantry to accommodate social distancing and hygiene protocols, says, “In the past, I noticed that it was a majority of women with children and elders accessing our pantry. Recently I have noticed an increase in men accessing our pantry. Most of these men are laborers and are currently out of work. I spoke to someone on the phone who inquired about our food pantry; they mentioned that they have no work and the little money they have they will be sending to their families who are struggling in Guatemala.”
At the beginning of the SIP order, our food pantry paused services for a week in order to evaluate our systems and ensure that we were providing a safe environment for clients, volunteers, and staff. Like many organizations (‘Last man standing’: Bay Area nonprofits that help the vulnerable try to push on during coronavirus ), we had to adjust to changes in the number of volunteers available to help distribute food, and we had to make major changes to how we distribute food in order to comply with health guidelines. Traditionally our food pantry is organized like a farmer’s market, with food displayed so that attendees can pick out the food they like to feed their families. This model gives people greater agency and empowers people to choose food that is best for their families. To accommodate hygiene and social distancing protocols, we are now handing out food pre-packed in reusable tote bags, with every attendee receiving the same bag of food. Please watch the video below to learn more about how the Canal Alliance food pantry works during the COVID-19 crisis and serves vulnerable members of the immigrant community.
While we have been able to increase our distribution to 500 individuals and families, the need is so great that each week there are even more people who come to our food pantry for whom we are unable to provide a full bag of food.
To supplement our food distribution, we have also received generous donations of gift certificates to Canal area restaurants from Dine11 Marin Families in Need, an organization that seeks to support both local restaurants and families in the Canal. These gift certificates ensure that more families have access to complete meals. Families are also able to apply for financial assistance through our Client Support Fund, which provides direct financial support to families who have experienced job and wage loss. With these funds, families can purchase whatever necessities meet their unique needs, including groceries.
Access to support from Canal Alliance and to the nutritious food provided by our food pantry is all the more important in light of the difficulties that immigrants can have in accessing food through CalFresh (formerly known as Food Stamps). To be able to access CalFresh, individuals must be a U.S. citizen or legal permanent resident, have refugee status, asylum, or parolee status, have, or be applying for, a U-Visa or T-Visa. Applicants cannot be undocumented, be on DACA, TPS or a work visa (A CalFresh guide for immigrants). While families can apply for CalFresh benefits as long as there is one person in the household who meets the requirements, many people are afraid to take advantage of this program because they fear that, under the new public charge rules, accessing public services will endanger their future immigration status options. In fact, when the public charge rule went into effect in February, many people dropped out of programs like CalFresh and MediCal (Immigrants afraid of Trump’s ‘public charge’ rule are dropping food stamps, MediCal). Fortunately, access to CalFresh benefits is never a requirement for residents to visit the Canal Alliance food pantry, so while our Social Services team assists people who qualify for CalFresh to sign up for benefits, there is always a way for local immigrant families to access fresh, healthy food, whether they qualify for CalFresh or not.
Canal Alliance not only supports immigrant families to access the food they need, but we also provide resources to help them understand what their rights are around policies like public charge and issues stemming from COVID-19. We know that many of the challenges our clients face, like accessing nutritious food, high-quality and affordable immigration legal assistance, and accurate and accessible health information, are part of systemic inequities that have plagued our community and nation for a very long time. These inequities intersect with each other and contribute heavily to the difficulty that immigrant families have in achieving the goals that brought them to the United States. At Canal Alliance, our mission is to help immigrant families break that cycle by lifting the barriers to their success; we know that providing access to nutritious food is a crucial part of helping immigrants pursue their goals for achieving economic stability and building better lives and futures for themselves and their children.