WPI-Local Tackles Food Insecurity in LA County

WPI-Local LA County Team

June  28, 2018
Written by Emylou Vergel de Dios, Communications & Development Intern for WFC

Although California is the world’s fifth largest economy, the golden state has the highest poverty rate in the nation. According to Feeding America, in 2016 approximately “1 in 8 Americans were food insecure,” at the national level.  42 million Americans have to face the question of where their next meal is coming from. As noted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture Economic Research Center and the Food Research and Action center, 24% of undocumented immigrant households face food insecurity, which is 10% higher than the general population’s experience with food insecurity. In the state of California, 40% of low-income adults in California are unable to afford enough food and 1 in 4 California children don’t have enough food.

In Los Angeles County, this issue is particularly exacerbated.  

According to the WPI-Local LA County team, “since 2002, food insecure families in Los Angeles County consistently rose from 24.7% of households to 33.5% of households in 2011 with around 22% of children in Los Angeles County identifying as food insecure in 2016.” The harms of food insecurity also impact the 24% of undocumented households. Furthermore, a 2014 report by Feeding America stated that it would take $774,124,000 to remedy the food insecurity problem in LA county. Families should not have to struggle to feed their loved ones.

We were able to talk with the WPI Local LA county team and learn more about their efforts to combat food insecurity through policy.

Women’s Foundation of CA (WFC): What led you to apply for WPI-Local?

WPI-Local LA County Team (WPI-Local LA): As policy students, we were looking for ways in which to engage in advocacy that is outside the confines of policy analysis and assessment.  WPI gave us a more tangible way to advocate for policy change and make an impact in the community in which we are apart of as USC students and City of Los Angeles residents. We were missing that hands-on experience, which is why we were excited about the fellowship so we could actually be part of where the magic of policy happens.

WFC: What were your initial thoughts or feelings regarding policy work prior to the fellowship?

WPI-Local LA: Policy work can be thought of as removed –  calculating risk and cost-benefit using tools such as data analysis and aggregated stories but not much is discussed in terms of community engagement as part of our graduate school curriculum.  The WPI-Local fellowship allowed us to extend beyond these limited tools and consider risk in terms of supporting important causes that impact lives because it is the right thing to do as members of a robust community rather than because it makes fiscal sense.  We were nervous to embark on this journey because none of us had prior experience as advocates and we did not know what the result of our work would be.

WFC: What interested you and your team in addressing food insecurity in your policy work with WPI?

WPI-Local LA: Teaching inspired me to figure out what the heck was going on in our school system. I was interested in food insecurity because I noticed it was affecting our students especially. Some of us had personal experiences with food insecurity and we all had varied interests like homeland security, international relations, education, transportation, but most importantly was our shared experiences with inequity. So we asked ourselves what could we all do with a collective passion and food insecurity amongst undocumented peoples interested everybody from a personal point of view.  In addition, one of our team members, a former teacher, shared studies on the correlation between lack of nutritious food and lower student success rates. We wanted to tackle policy that would support the most vulnerable residents in our community and so we further researched the issue of food insecurity for undocumented people.  

WFC: What are some historical factors that have led to food insecurity for undocumented residents?

WPI-Local LA: Historically, the farm bill (first passed in 1933) which allocates funding for SNAP benefits has excluded non-U.S. citizens from receiving federal support. California has modeled its State-funded California Food Assistance Program from the federal program, making a few exceptions to provide support to qualified non-Citizens which continues to exclude undocumented people.

WFC: What are some present barriers for people to achieve food security?

WPI-Local LA: In Los Angeles in particular, the biggest barriers are livable income and wages. We saw that a lot of people in LA were spending money on rent rather than food. A lot of people who are going hungry are working…a lot! There’s just not enough money for bills, so food is the first thing to go. Around 60% of people in soup kitchens are undocumented peoples. Therefore, we have a whole group of people who are unable to access food services. Historically, immigrants have not been able to receive federal food benefits. The funding for CalFresh were for people who were classified as “qualified” immigration status.

WFC: How did your team connect with the community you were serving?

WPI-Local LA: We held a community meeting to get real testimonies and feedback from people who are undocumented and food insecure, people who have been affected by this issue. The majority of people who attended were affected by the issue and the other half were working on this issue professionally. This meeting even helped our community partners, who work on affordable housing. Residents expressed their interest for the second meeting coming up in July.

WFC: What are some of the highlights and challenges that came up during the fellowship?

WPI-Local LA: Highlights include engaging with the staff of a county supervisor’s office. Our interaction with her has been extremely uplifting and indicative of the strength of advocacy for a cause based on values and we are happy to have that genuine relationship with them. We also held a community meeting in Westlake with community members affected by citizenship status and hunger. It was so humbling to hear their stories and to have them willingly be so vulnerable with us because they believed and had experienced hunger first hand because of their citizenship status.

WFC: What is the current status or movement of your specific policy?

WPI-Local LA: We are still advocating for the policy at the county level and are still in contact with the Board of Supervisors to push the policy forward.

WFC: What are some barriers you think your team will face in its lobbying efforts to expand CFAP to the undocumented community?

WPI-Local LA: A few barriers our team is facing in its lobbying efforts would be the lack of priority from local and state governments to prioritize undocumented people in the wake of fighting to maintain multiple supporting policies for citizens. The farm bill is also still under vote in Congress and intense polarization has caused the vote to be pushed to June. Lastly, increased fear from undocumented people to enroll in programs that they may be eligible for (i.e. WIC) will further marginalize individuals and families and make them less visible to policy makers.

WFC: In sum, what would you say is the overall goal of your team’s work?

WPI-Local LA:To have the county of Los Angeles advocate to push the state to open up all the CFAP funding to people who are undocumented. We want Los Angeles to take the lead in advocating and pushing the state to reconsider this idea of a “qualified immigrant” because food insecurity affects LA county at such an increasing rate compared to other counties. We’re losing a lot of funding. We want LA to take the lead in getting CA to open up CFAP funding to all immigrant families regardless of citizenship.

WFC: How has the WPI-Local fellowship impacted your personal and professional life?

WPI-Local LA: We’ve created great friendships and bonds with our fellow colleagues throughout our year with WPI.  It’s an incredibly humbling and energizing space to be in surrounded by strong-willed and intelligent women who choose to uplift and enact change for the betterment of society. Even though the fellowship is ending we still feel empowered to continue moving forward. Now it’s just us as a group of four women who have done this work and just care about people not being hungry in Los Angeles. We’ve learned how to advocate from talking to elected officials, building coalitions, and identifying problems. Most importantly, we learned how to empower ourselves.


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