Elizabeth S., a mother of young children who was fleeing domestic violence, should have received her Emergency CalFresh benefits no more than three days after she applied. But despite qualifying for expedited relief, she was forced to wait 16 days for food assistance. She spent those 16 days anxious, waiting in long food distribution lines and skipping meals to ensure there was enough food for her children. Her two lactose-intolerant children had stomachaches because she did not have the money to buy the appropriate milk for them, and the meals she was able to provide were less nutritious. In short order, she fell behind on rent.
Elizabeth was one of more than 54,000 eligible households who were forced to wait for days, weeks, and even months for emergency CalFresh benefits, in clear violation of a state law requiring counties to provide these benefits within three days to people with extremely low incomes, and whose housing costs exceed their resources or income for the month. That widespread violation left more than 100,000 of Los Angeles’ poorest residents without access to food—an unconscionable failure that harmed families who were already struggling to survive.
In November of 2021, following months of unsuccessful advocacy efforts to persuade the county to correct its systemic failures, Neighborhood Legal Services of Los Angeles County (NLSLA)—along with co-counsel Western Center on Law and Poverty, Public Interest Law Project, and pro bono firm Sidley Austin—filed a lawsuit. We represented two organizations—Hunger Action Los Angeles and Los Angeles Community Action Network—as well as an individual applicant who had been affected by the delays. And we argued that delaying these emergency benefits—even for a matter of days—can have devastating consequences for families living on the margins.
Seven months later, the county agreed to enter into a permanent injunction requiring its Department of Social Services to come into full compliance with the law by June 1, 2022. When it fell woefully short of achieving that goal, we filed a motion to enforce. As a result, the most recent data issued by the County reflects that, as of December 2022, the County has granted benefits in a timely manner to more than 98% of eligible households. It’s a remarkable turnaround, and a significant victory in the ongoing fight against hunger.