Opinion: When pandemic food and health care aid ends, there will be more reliance on nonprofits in San Diego

Novotny is Development Director at Mama’s Kitchen, a nonprofit organization that provides meals to seriously ill San Diego residents. She lives in Rancho Peñasquitos.

The COVID-19 pandemic and ensuing economic crisis have left many San Diego residents in dire need of food and medical assistance as people lose jobs, lose family members, or lose stability. Nonprofit local nutrition and social services have become a lifeline for millions. But now that the COVID-19 emergency in California ended on February 28, the emergency response programs and precautions that have allowed these groups to respond effectively will begin to disappear.

Those of us who lead nonprofit organizations that provide essential food and social services are seeking additional support as we prepare to respond to the fallout from the end of emergency relief programs. People will continue to need our help.

Beginning April 1, California will begin reevaluating the eligibility of more than 1 million San Diegos on Medi-Cal. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, about 65 percent of Medicaid beneficiaries lose coverage for at least one period in the 12 months following continuous enrollment changes. These individuals could lose coverage either temporarily due to administrative issues such as not having a current address, or permanently because they are no longer eligible.

Our medical system is collapsing under the pressure of delayed health visits due to the pandemic. Now, many doctor’s appointments may be rescheduled again due to lack of funds.

Additionally, the CalFresh emergency food aid quota will expire in March given high grocery store prices. This emergency allocation provided each CalFresh household with an additional at least $95 per month. Some received hundreds more.

According to the San Diego Hunger Coalition, as of June 2022, even with CalFresh emergency quotas, there was a food gap — the number of meals needed by the food-insecure population after subtracting self-bought meals and food aid — of 9.9 million meals. but without those allocations, that food gap would have been 17.7 million.

These changes will be devastating for so many families – especially the elderly, the disabled and the critically ill.

During the pandemic, federal and state governments made key changes to what they described as the “safety net” programs, including increases in CalFresh payments, stimulus payments, child tax credits, free school meals, and lowering the hurdles for program enrollment.

But when those benefits end, nonprofits are the true safety net that millions rely on. We know that from experience. This is not the first time we are here. Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits increased during the Great Recession, and when the increase ended in 2013, food banks and nonprofit food services were bombed. Today, nonprofit organizations face the challenge of keeping up with increasing demand while also dealing with inflation that has increased costs and challenged operations.

The team at Mama’s Kitchen — an organization that delivers free, medically-tailored meals to thousands of critically ill San Diego residents — is still serving 80 percent more people today than they did in February 2020.

We are currently receiving 330 new referrals each month for critically ill individuals at risk of malnutrition, many of whom lack access to other resources and would not otherwise know where their next meal will come from. Not only are we serving more people, but it costs us more to prepare and deliver each meal.

Our staff are preparing for the impact of these registry changes. We know only too well that health care and access to food are closely linked. The lack of a healthy diet or adequate health care increases the risk of disease. Those who are ill are more likely to face obstacles to accessing healthy nutrition, whether due to pain, lack of mobility, financial hardship or loss of wages. The lack of food stalls and deteriorates people’s health, making recovery more difficult.

We need the support of our entire community to ensure that no one falls through the safety net and that we can keep up with the increasing demand. We need elected officials committed to providing additional support and funding at the local, state, and federal levels — especially for organizations like Mama’s Kitchen that serve our most vulnerable, homebound population. We need local charities to recognize and respond to this next wave of need as partners in trust-based philanthropy. And we need individual community members to get involved as advocates, volunteers or donors.

For many people in San Diego, it may feel like the pandemic is over. You’ll see the light at the end of the tunnel or feel like you’ve gone completely through the tunnel and are gazing at a clearer sky. But at Mama’s Kitchen, and at nonprofits like us, we know that for far too many, the light still looks like a pinhole at the end of the tunnel. However, the light can come closer for all as we all come together to address the fallout from the end of pandemic relief.

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