Psych! President's $60M in Aid to Drought-Stricken California Farms Isn't Really an Increase

Three years of dry skies, SNAP cuts, and now this. How will California's poverty belt cope?

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President Barack Obama speaks to the media on California's drought situation in Los Banos, Calif. (Photo: Wally SKALIJ/AFP/Getty Images)

Willy Blackmore is TakePart’s Food editor.

When Barack Obama came to California last week to see the impact of the state’s record-setting drought, part of the relief package he announced included emergency funding for food banks in farming communities.

“Amid one of the driest years in the state's recorded history,” The Associated Press reported on Friday, “Obama came to the Fresno area to announce $100 million in livestock-disaster aid, $60 million to support food banks and another $13 million toward things such as conservation and helping rural communities that could soon run out of drinking water.”

Food banks that have been awaiting details regarding the emergency funds are slowly coming to the realization that the president's announcement didn't mean any new money is coming from the feds.

“This is not an additional allocation to California or to TEFAP,” the Emergency Food Assistance program, according to Mike Ladd, public affairs director at the western regional office of the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Services. 

Rather, the $60 million is the amount that was earmarked for emergency food assistance well ahead of the drought—which, despite only being officially declared by Gov. Jerry Brown last month, is now in its third, most bone-dry year.

Despite that disappointment, food banks serving the low-wage farmworkers in California’s Central Valley have been expecting the higher unemployment rates and increased demand for food assistance that dry weather brings to rural parts of the state. 

“The food banks have known for quite some time that drought and severe drought were the most likely forecast for this year, so they have been preparing,” says Sue Sigler, executive director of the California Association of Food Banks. 

Not only are they expecting an influx of hungry patrons thanks to the drought; the reduction in SNAP benefits that occurred last November and the new farm bill that's being implemented, with its further-reduced food stamp budget, will have negative tolls too. Given all those factors, the lack of new money from Washington to help cope is an especially bitter pill. 

The association is still trying to assess the drought's impact on residents in California's ag communities, but lessons learned from the last, less severe dry spell suggest it could be broad and deep. Sigler said the 2009 drought pushed unemployment in some communities in the Central Valley—an economically depressed area even when times are good elsewhere in California—to as high as 40 percent.

An “overview” of the last drought, which lasted from 2007 to 2009, published by the California Department of Water Resources in 2010 says that the weather-induced unemployment led Fresno County to declare a local state of emergency in 2009 in response to the food crisis. The authors quote county officials who told them,

The demand on the local Community Food Bank continues to increase, where, they have provided food to residents on multiple occasions, only to run short each time. Thousands of people have been turned away during giveaways as supplies are not ample enough to meet the local need. During the Community Food Bank’s most recent neighborhood market distribution in the City of Mendota on February 2, 2009, 3,248 people were served. 

Sigler says that the food banks she works with in the Central Valley are doing all they can to connect hungry residents with whatever resources and assistance they can provide. And she’s still holding out hope for wetter weather.

“If we all do that right dance, we could have another storm or two,” she said. “And while it certainly won’t eliminate that drought, that could mediate some of its worst effects.”

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