California to offer food benefits to undocumented immigrants

California is expected to be the first state to offer food benefits to immigrants residing illegally in the US according to a state budget plan unveiled this week.

The unique policy fills the gaps in the safety net as immigrants living in the US without legal status are not eligible for federal benefits such as food stamps.

But the new program only benefits Californians over the age of 55, rejecting pleas by anti-poverty attorneys to cover all ages.

“All Californians, regardless of age or where they were born, should have access to basic necessities such as food and a fair, steady wage. But unnecessary barriers continue to exclude hundreds of thousands of our neighbors and families from critical, life-saving services,” said Sarah Dar, policy director at the California Immigrant Policy Center.

The record state budget deal signed by Governor Gavin Newsom and lawmakers includes $35.2 million to expand the state’s food aid program to residents who are age-eligible “regardless of immigration status.” Funding for the new program will increase to $113.4 million annually in 2025-26.

Some legally resident immigrants are also barred from federal food benefits, although California has provided state-funded aid to that group, totaling 35,000 people, for decades.

The latest state budget extends the California Food Assistance Program to immigrants over age 55, regardless of their immigration status. It is estimated that the new policy will benefit an additional 75,000 Californians each year a report from the Legislative Analyst Bureau.

Proponents across the state have praised Newsom and Democratic lawmakers for taking the national lead in pushing for more aid for immigrants in need living illegally in the US, but questioning the age limit.

According to a report Released in April by Nourish California, a human rights and food access organization, nearly half of Californians without legal immigration status struggle with food insecurity, the majority of whom are adults ages 27 to 49.

“We are absolutely grateful, but we know the need is greater, and many more California immigrants are in need of food aid, especially now,” said Betzabel Estudillo, a senior advocate at Nourish California, pointing to inflation and rising gas prices. “When you’re eating with your family, everyone should have access to the meal.”

HD Palmer, spokesman for the Newsom Treasury Department, said in a statement Tuesday that targeting the over-55s maximizes “state investment impact” and is part of California’s aging master plan. The move is similar to other progressive age-based policies led by Newsom, including the expanding Medi-Cal . coverage for eligible Californians regardless of their immigration status.

Donna Yerat-Rodriguez grew up eligible for programs like CalFresh, as she was born in the US, but her mother, who immigrated illegally from Guadalajara, Mexico, was not.

“There were days when me and my younger sister went to school on an empty stomach because we had to divide the amount of food we could buy,” she said. “We would resort to one meal a day instead of three.”

Her mother is still ineligible for the new food benefit program because she is 43.

“It’s absolutely disheartening to think that my mother was a person who continues to be excluded, and so I think there’s a great need to extend this to people of all ages,” she said.

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