AP NEWS
Related topics

AFTER THE RIOT: US Denied Emergency Food Stamps for Los Angeles

August 5, 1992

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Despite President Bush’s declaration of a disaster after the Los Angeles riots, more than 20,000 needy residents had to wait more than a month for emergency food stamps because the Agriculture Department decided they could get by without the aid. Some are still waiting.

One of them was Bobbie Wise, who brought her 2-month-old baby and 6 1/2 -year-old son to a hearing before a federal judge in Los Angeles on June 5, a month after the riots ended.

″We were out of lights for about two weeks,″ she said. ″My apartment is all electric. ... The food spoiled in the fridge.″

″People were telling me, ’I don’t have enough to give the children, so I don’t eat so they can eat,‴ community activist Berta Saavedra said in an interview this week.

Bush declared Los Angeles a disaster area on May 2, after four days of the worst civil disturbances in the nation’s history. The declaration was followed by promises of aid from a number of federal agencies.

The Agriculture Department responded quickly with tons of free food. But local officials said there were long lines, not enough free food to fill the need, and emergency food stamps were still necessary.

Applicants for those food stamps said they were unable to obtain fresh food, milk and baby formula because of the fires, looting, power outages and lost income from disrupted jobs.

Los Angeles County’s request for them was rejected May 8 by Sharon Levinson, the Western regional administrator of USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service, which runs the food stamp program. Levinson wrote to the county that it had failed to demonstrate the need for the stamps. Public-interest attorneys sued Agriculture Secretary Edward Madigan on May 18.

But Betty Jo Nelsen, the Food and Nutrition Service’s top official, told Congress on May 20 that no decision had been made. She mentioned neither Levinson’s May 8 letter nor the lawsuit.

Internal memos signed by Nelsen show, however, that she knew on May 8 about Levinson’s letter. One memo, written that day, said Levinson was ″drafting a letter which will state that FNS is unable to approve the request (for emergency food stamps) at this time because the county has not provided sufficient information to justify the need.″

On May 29, U.S. District Judge Mariana Pfaelzer in Los Angeles ordered government attorneys to negotiate a settlement of the class-action lawsuit with the groups that had sued Madigan: the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of Southern California, the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles and the Western Center on Law and Poverty.

A settlement was reached June 5 and a month-long emergency program went into effect a week later, nearly six weeks after the riots began.

″There are folks who lost the benefits, in effect, because they didn’t receive help when it was most needed,″ said Brian Lawlor, an attorney with the Legal Aid Foundation.

One of them was Krystal Alexander, a 23-year-old foster parent to two young twins. She lost her job as a childcare worker when her place of business burned down during the riots. The power went out in the house she shares with her brother and his daughter, causing the food in the refrigerator to spoil.

In an affidavit filed in court, Alexander said she did not have enough money to buy healthy food and had to water down the babies’ formula to make it last longer.

As of mid-July, 21,313 Los Angeles residents who normally would not have been eligible for food stamps had applied for emergency coupons because of the riots, said Dick Montoya, spokesman for the Food and Nutrition Service in its Western regional office.

Of those, roughly half had been approved, 1,731 had been rejected and the rest were still being processed, Montoya said.

Montoya defended Levinson’s decision denying immediate emergency food stamps to Los Angeles County. In other disasters, such as the San Francisco area earthquake in October 1989, Montoya said, emergency food stamps were needed because cities and counties that administer existing programs couldn’t cope with the increased demand.

″That wasn’t the case in Los Angeles,″ Montoya said. ″People didn’t come flocking to the (food stamp) offices. ... There didn’t appear to be that need.″

While Levinson’s May 8 letter to a California social services official denied the distribution of emergency food stamps, her staff expanded the existing food stamp program for those already receiving them. The changes allowed some recipients to get supplemental stamps, for example, if they lost income because of the riots.

Dick Thaxton, the Food and Nutrition Service’s deputy administrator for disaster assistance, said Levinson consulted with high-level USDA officials in Washington when she wrote the May 8 letter, and said it reflected ongoing deliberations in the government.

Because of those deliberations, Thaxton argued that Nelsen did not mislead Congress when she told the Senate Agriculture Committee on May 20 that no decision had yet been made.

Nelsen appeared before the panel for a hearing on her nomination to become assistant secretary for food and consumer services, an appointment that is still pending.

Asked by panel Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., whether emergency food stamps were being provided to Los Angeles riot victims, she said, ″That matter is under hourly evaluation and consideration in the department, and the decision has not yet been made.″

Nelsen never mentioned Levinson’s denial of the emergency request or the lawsuit contesting that action, filed two days before the hearing.

″Obviously we were in a hurry to get through″ the hearing, Thaxton said. ″You try to avoid controversy. ... She was trying to answer the question that the senator posed.″

Nelsen was not available to comment on the matter, Thaxton said.