San Jose wants more federal help to feed struggling residents
Mayor Sam Liccardo addresses the novel coronavirus at a news conference in San Jose. File Photo by Nadia Lopez.

With unemployment rates surging, more San Jose families are relying on the city to provide free meals. But as the demand for food in San Jose skyrockets, so have the city’s costs, worrying local leaders who say the city might not receive crucial federal funds to feed the bulk of its food-insecure residents.

While the city has beefed up its efforts to provide free meals to residents sheltering in place during the COVID-19 pandemic, some city officials say the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s guidelines for federal reimbursements are too strict, potentially leaving the city with a hefty bill to pay on its own.

“What we thought we would be able to be reimbursed with by FEMA is much narrower than what we had originally anticipated,” Lee Wilcox, chief of staff to the city manager, said at Tuesday’s City Council meeting.

The city’s food-distribution operations have reached new highs, and the need is growing, according to Deputy City Manager Angel Rios. The city is serving an average of 510,213 meals a day to Santa Clara County residents, up from 360,213 meals last week, he added, totaling more than 2.5 million meals across the county per week.

As the coronavirus rages, Rios said the city is discussing funding with FEMA to help pay for its food-distribution efforts, but the two agencies disagree on who qualifies for those dollars.

Under FEMA’s guidelines, cities will receive reimbursements for emergency services geared toward those exposed to or infected with COVID-19 and high-risk individuals. The federal agency also mentions reimbursements for “areas where it will be necessary,” where food is not readily available as a result of COVID-19, and to “protect the public from the spread of the virus.”

But FEMA’s definition of whom the city can feed in order to receive a reimbursement has left out a significant portion of San Jose residents who are in need of meals, such as those who are unemployed or facing an economic hardship, Rios said.

“From a city perspective, our number one priority is to meet the community need as it relates to accessibility to food,” he added. “We believe that what we have done in terms of addressing the need is consistent with the spirit of those initial guidelines that we received from FEMA — that’s been our position.”

But the federal agency’s priority is to fund food services for people who are at high risk or exposed to the virus, according to spokesperson Victor Inge, such as those who qualify for the state’s Great Plates Delivered program.

The state’s program — launched two weeks ago — gives older adults ages 60 to 64, low-income seniors over 65 and those with a compromised immune system free meals, three times a day.

The program largely relies on funds from FEMA, which has agreed to pay for 75 percent of the costs, while the state will pay for 75 percent of the remaining costs.

Other requests will be considered, he added, but the “individuals deemed most highly vulnerable” will be prioritized.

“We know some communities are engaging efforts that extend beyond FEMA’s funding approval to the state of California, and we will seek to reimburse all FEMA public assistance applicants to the maximum extent allowed under the program’s policies,” he said.

Still, many city leaders argue that those who have lost a job or are financially struggling should be pooled into that category as well.

“Based on what we’re hearing…they’re only going to reimburse us for that food which is prepared and delivered to individuals with COVID or are being isolated specifically for COVID, not simply what we might refer to as the great majority who have been affected as refugees of this pandemic,” Mayor Sam Liccardo said at Tuesday’s meeting.

If FEMA doesn’t loosen its strict restrictions on federal reimbursements, Deputy City Manager Kip Harkness added, the city will not receive federal money for the bulk of its food-distribution efforts.

“We reiterated our perspective that it’s not just a random economic downturn — it is directly related to government action to stop disease and therefore part of the response,” Harkness said at Tuesday’s meeting. “But they were clear that FEMA guidance is narrowly tailored towards those folks with COVID or those folks isolating with COVID, with some broader exceptions for some of the homeless community that are also affected by the pandemic.”

The city’s food-distribution operations, which include the food bank Second Harvest of Silicon Valley and sites at hundreds of schools, will cost between $10 and $13 million.

Inge said FEMA is also funding businesses and nonprofit organizations such as Meals on Wheels, Cal Fresh and “other community-based food programs” to feed those in need.

Contact Nadia Lopez at [email protected] or follow @n_llopez on Twitter.

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