The pandemic has disproportionately affected communities of color and vulnerable groups facing financial and health challenges, and food security is certainly no exception. Between April and December of 2020, one in three Los Angeles County households experienced food insecurity. While hunger in our city is still an intractable problem, a new study directed by the Public Exchange at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts, and Sciences suggests the situation has improved. Christine Tran, Executive Director of the Los Angeles Food Policy Council, joins Evan Kleiman to help break down the report and explain who continues to be impacted.
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
KCRW: Tell us about the study and who conducted it.
Christine Tran: “The study is called ‘The Impact of COVID-19 on Food Security in Los Angeles County.’ And the lead researcher is Dr. Kayla de la Haye. She's an assistant professor of population and public health sciences at USC Keck School of Medicine. And she was part of a larger team that partnered with private sectors, including Yelp and a website Findhelp.org. And together, they worked alongside the LA County Emergency Food Security Branch to better understand the numbers that folks are going through in real time. I think one of the biggest parts about this report is that as we are trying to be responsive, information, such as real data, is important for us to improve our practices and also to improve the services that communities are having access to.”
What were the initial questions that they considered and wanted to answer?
“The three main questions that really drove their research included, ‘How has access to food and food insecurity changed?’ Secondly, ‘How have food assistance programs across LA County changed?’ and this includes WIC and CalFresh. And the third question they had was, ‘How do the answers to these questions vary based on demographics and neighborhood location?’”
Who were the adults who remained food insecure during the first half of 2021?
“The population that remained food insecure included primarily low income women, Latinos, and those between the ages of 18 and 40. The findings around that actually pair really interestingly with trends that most folks don't connect to, for instance, economic trends with employment. We have a lot of data on unemployment rates, but then there are populations that aren't quite captured in there. And so a lot of low income [people], especially women, domestic workers, specifically, that's one of the reasons why that population remained food insecure.
Many young people also remain food insecure.
“There are a lot of challenges when we think about kids who graduated high school and went on to college. That first year for a lot of folks during this pandemic was really rough. In addition, when we think about the workforce, people who may be working their first job for the first time [were] displaced out of the economy. So folks who were within that 18 to 40 year old range reflects not only the state of our economies, but also life milestones that folks might go through.”
Was there an increase in the number of people who used CalFresh — what we used to call food stamps — and did it help?
“Pre-pandemic, there were some numbers that reflected some challenges with accessing CalFresh. CalFresh isn't the easiest program to apply to and navigate. I actually grew up in a CalFresh household, and applying for CalFresh benefits requires a lot of navigating applications and knowing when to recertify your application. And so a lot of folks were actually not applying to CalFresh because of these challenges.
One of the things that happened during this time was the government federally implemented waivers [that] allowed for streamlining of paperwork. So telephonic signatures were permissible. That meant we can verify folks’ identity [over] the phone, alongside paperwork and documentation, of course, but pre-pandemic, a lot of face to face time was required. So there were a number of food support programs like CalFresh and WIC that received waivers that allowed participants of the program to enroll at a much higher rate. And specifically, by removing these barriers, more people actually were able to apply because it was easier.”
Is basic access to healthy food still a problem in many neighborhoods?
“Unfortunately, it is. And I would also say that alongside not having enough places to buy food, which a lot of people call ‘food deserts,’ ... the infrastructure for those places is not there as well. One big thing during the pandemic was [that] to just hop on a bus or train was difficult because lines changed the rules, [and had] reduction of services. A lot of those dial-a-rides had to modify services, and so senior populations had a hard time accessing the normal services that they would have if it was pre-pandemic. So a lot of times when we think about food deserts in our community, there's not only the lack of places to buy food, but the infrastructure to get folks from point A to point B.”
Did the report outline responses or recommendations for the county?
“Yes, the county recommendations included more targeted outreach to enroll more food insecure people in CalFresh. And that's actually a project that the LA Food Policy Council has been working on alongside partners like the Department of Public Health and First 5 LA. And that targeted outreach speaks to how to support populations that are often either underserved or missing in data somehow.
The second big recommendation includes investigating community perspectives by interviewing folks who may be impacted by food insecurity. And that ties really well with that first recommendation. In order to outreach, how do you connect the dots between the needs that people may have and reasons why they might not want to access or don't have access to them? And a third area that they recommended was to address the equitable access to food through urban planning. LA is a planned city and county. So how do we actually connect the dots back to the infrastructure of our communities? Through elected officials, through government, and really figuring out those areas of infrastructural needs for our communities. Because at any given time, as the pandemic taught us, things can happen, and how do we prepare for those things?
And then the last thing that they have recommended for the county is to monitor and invest in fair and resilient food system by building partnerships. So this report is an example of the private sector and academia getting together alongside government and really figuring out [that] those dots are really important, not only for the folks who are impacted by food insecurity, but also the infrastructures required to show up for them when they need that support.”