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Food insecurity shows no sign of improvement

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For many of us, this is a time to be thankful for the blessings we enjoy.

For others, it's another week of wondering if there'll be enough food to keep the family fed.

At least 4 million Californians are struggling with what's called food insecurity — being unable to consistently put food on the table — according to the latest data from UCLA's Center for Health Policy Research.

Closer to home, the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank says it's working harder than ever to meet demand for assistance from individuals and families amid recent cuts to food-stamp programs.

"There's been no letup since the Great Recession hit," said Michael Flood, president of the food bank, which distributes more than 1 million pounds of food each week to charities and nonprofit groups throughout the region.

"We're talking about people who have to decide between buying food and paying the rent, or between food and medicine," he said. "It's a very difficult situation."

Food-stamp benefits for about 47 million people nationwide were reduced this month when a temporary boost to the federal program ended. That cut about $5 billion in annual funding.

That means a family of four that had been receiving $668 a month in benefits will now get by on $36 less.

Such a drop might not sound like much, but the Department of Agriculture estimates this means a loss of roughly 21 individual meals a month.

South Los Angeles resident Regina Hernandez, 31, told me that food-stamp benefits for her family of five have been reduced by almost $100. Her husband works as a janitor, and his salary isn't enough to feed their kids.

So Hernandez said she's sought help from a local food pantry in South Los Angeles.

"Without that," she said, "it would be very hard to make sure that our kids aren't hungry."

House Republicans now are seeking to slash food-stamp benefits by a further $40 billion over the next decade.

Marlin Stutzman, an Indiana Republican who has led efforts to cut food-stamp spending, said conservative lawmakers are simply trying to place the country on "a fiscally responsible path."

"In the real world, we measure success by results," he said. "It's time for Washington to measure success by how many families are lifted out of poverty and helped back on their feet, not by how much Washington bureaucrats spend year after year."

Julio Ramos lives in a different real world. He serves as administrative director of All Peoples Community Center, which is helping Hernandez and dozens of other nearby residents make ends meet.

He said there are some days that the center runs out of supplies and has to tell people to come back another time.

"It's getting tougher and tougher," Ramos said. "Families are struggling, especially when the husband is unemployed. People are desperate for food."

Demand at food pantries often reflects the unemployment rate. The more people without jobs, the more need there is for assistance.

California's unemployment rate remained at 8.7% last month. That translates to about 1.6 million people being out of work. Economists don't expect hiring to pick up in any appreciable fashion until next summer at the soonest.

The regional food bank's Flood said financial contributions would help their efforts. "Every dollar we get can be turned into four meals," he said.

Ramos encouraged people to consider donating food or money to a local food pantry or to volunteer some time helping distribute supplies.

I asked whether he sees things improving any time soon. Ramos paused to consider the question.

"I want to be hopeful and say that things will get better," he replied. "But I just don't know."

Flu shots

I wrote recently about drugstores telling people their insurance didn't cover flu shots when it actually did. I cited numerous instances of people paying about $30 for a vaccination when their insurance should have picked up most or all of the cost.

This prompted an organization called Change to Win Retail Initiatives to check things out for themselves at 50 Walgreens stores in Los Angeles and New York.

"Walgreens is the biggest provider of flu shots other than the federal government," said Matthew Painter, a spokesman for the group, which is backed by labor unions. "We figured this would give an idea of what the industry is doing."

And guess what? The group says it found that in 48% of store visits, Walgreens pharmacy workers told customers that their flu shots weren't covered when they really were. In L.A. alone, customers received bad info 56% of the time.

A Walgreens spokesman said the company would have no comment until it sees the group's full report.

David Lazarus' column runs Tuesdays and Fridays. He also can be seen daily on KTLA-TV Channel 5 and followed on Twitter @Davidlaz. Send your tips or feedback to david.lazarus@latimes.com.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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