I can’t keep track of the number of days I’ve gone without lunch. Oftentimes, I eat breakfast at 8 a.m. and then wait 12 hours and eat dinner at 8 p.m., all so I don’t go to bed hungry. Being a full-time student and part-time preschool teacher, it was hard to be my best for myself and my young students.
As someone who experienced homelessness at age 19, I know how to make ends meet with meager funds. I know how to stretch my meals and what to purchase that won’t perish quickly. But no one should ever have to face the difficult circumstances and impossible choices I had to make.
As one of the plaintiffs in a class action lawsuit against the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), brought by Western Center on Law and Poverty and Impact Fund, I am sharing my story because food should not be treated as “optional.” Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) food benefits are not a “nice to have,” they are a “need to have” for 40 million Americans, many of whom are children, seniors and people with disabilities. In a major victory, we secured October benefits for this year and years to come, but each month after is another fight.
Congress averted a shutdown on Sept. 30 by passing a continuing resolution. If Congress can’t get their act together, millions will go hungry as the new year starts, thanks to their political games.
I make $1,300 a month as a part time preschool teacher. I am studying full-time to continue my impactful work with preschoolers and work toward more opportunities and better financial stability that are opened up to me with a degree. My monthly expenses for my basic needs such as rent, utilities, car insurance and gas needed to go to work, and out-of-pocket medical expenses, are almost identical to my monthly take-home income. I try to save any extra income from the months where I can work more hours to use in the months when my basic expenses go over my take-home pay. CalFresh, California’s version of SNAP, provides me with $88 in food benefits a month, down from $250 during the pandemic.
When I shop at the grocery store, I make sure to purchase things like rice, bread, canned or frozen food that can last me a long time. I try to buy fresh fruits and vegetables, but they are expensive and don’t last as long as other canned items. During the pandemic, when I received $250 a month, I was able to buy more fruits and vegetables and add more variety to my meals. My ability to stretch my benefits is challenged by inflation, which drove up food prices 4.5 percent. With the high cost of living, Los Angeles County has an estimated 31 percent of people who are food insecure, higher than the national average.
Troublingly, 1 in 5 Californians are food insecure and about 10 percent of all Americans rely on SNAP. Now imagine all that but with a family of four. Imagine it as a senior who can’t go to the grocery store. Imagine it as someone with a disability who can’t cook due to their condition or lack of accessibility options. Some people receive only $20 a month, but any little bit helps to relieve the stress and anxiety of going hungry or your children not knowing where their next meal is coming from.
My life and the livelihood of 40 million Americans is not a game. In September, the Census Bureau reported a rise in the poverty rate, the “largest one-year jump on record,” in which poverty increased to 12.4 percent in 2022 up from 7.8 percent in 2021. Anti-hunger and anti-poverty fights are interconnected. Those of us who fall below the poverty line struggle to pay rent, put food on the table, afford childcare and more. Federal and state pandemic policies clearly lifted millions out from poverty, but policymakers’ refusal to renew these programs left us to each flail again.
I am proud to be part of this momentous anti-hunger work led by Western Center and others. But I am tired. I am tired of the games in Washington and I am tired of the people who judge and look down on people like me. I am tired of not being able to be my best self with my preschoolers and I am tired of being unable to focus on my school work because my stomach is growling. Inaction and bad public policy leave people like me in bad situations day in and day out. It’s past time to listen to advocates and make food benefits permanent and not leave it to the whims of politicians.
Jacqueline Benitez is a preschool teacher and full-time student living in Bellflower in Los Angeles County. She is a plaintiff in a class action lawsuit against the USDA over SNAP benefits, represented by Western Center on Law and Poverty and Impact Fund.