More Bay Area residents than ever will be relying on food assistance this Thanksgiving

Holiday meals will be unusually expensive this year, with food prices in the San Francisco area up 10% from last year, according to October data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. At the same time, enrollment for the state’s largest food assistance program is at an all-time high.

More Bay Area residents will be relying on financial aid from CalFresh — California’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) — this holiday season than in previous years. September data shows enrollment reached over 600,000 people in Bay Area counties, a nearly 50% increase from September 2019.

Towards the beginning of the pandemic, the government made CalFresh more generous, which is one of the reasons why many more people signed up to receive food assistance. As of January 2022, the average participant receives an average of $262 in monthly food assistance, according to a report from the Public Policy Institute of California. This is an increase from $141 in monthly payments in 2019. CalFresh expects to continue paying out unusually large allotments as long as the country remains in a state of public health emergency.

Still, the public’s need for food assistance has not let up, according to Meg Davidson, director of policy and advocacy at the San Francisco-Marin Food Bank, which provides food to low-income households and helps people sign up for CalFresh benefits.

Whether it was spikes in COVID-19 cases, people losing their jobs, inflation or increased food prices, Davidson said addressing the need for food assistance throughout the pandemic has been like a “game of Whac-a-Mole — as soon as one thing ended, another thing came back up.”

“We’ve been at historic levels of need that we’ve been addressing since the beginning of the pandemic,” Davidson said. “It’s not only that it hasn’t abated, we’re actually seeing more people — that’s across all of our programs, not just our CalFresh outreach.”

The impact of inflated food prices is being felt by families and food banks alike. The San Francisco-Marin Food Bank estimates that this year’s holiday menu will cost the organization 35% more than last year due to inflation.

CalFresh participation rates rose in every Bay Area county from 2019 to 2022. San Francisco saw the highest percentage increase among the nine counties with a 56% increase in enrollment from September 2019 to September 2022. Contra Costa County followed with a 52% increase.

A previous Chronicle analysis showed that wealthier California counties have had the largest increases in CalFresh participants since the start of the pandemic, mostly because those counties had the lowest participation rates to begin with.

As the economy slows, inflation is felt particularly strongly among people of color and lower-paid workers, according to Abimael Chavez-Hernandez, an economic justice researcher at the San Francisco-based think tank SPUR. Chavez-Hernandez points out in a recent report that Black and brown Bay Area residents were hit particularly hard during the pandemic by job losses and are particularly likely to be food insecure.

Chavez-Hernandez thinks that even the increased CalFresh payments might not be enough to adequately help these struggling households. “The annual adjustments for inflation were made, but the recent increases in food prices, especially since April 2021, have made it difficult to keep up with,” Chavez-Hernandez said.

Adriana Rezal is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: adriana.rezal@sfchronicle.com