The food bank at Meet Each Need with Dignity in Pacoima was bustling on a recent day with people reaching for donated fruits, vegetables, juice and other goods.
And yet, when a volunteer grabbed a microphone to ask the hungry crowd, "Who wants to apply for food stamps?" no one raised a hand.
The scene captured the dilemma of the county Department of Public Social Services, which has struggled to boost enrollment in the federal food stamp program, known locally as CalFresh.
In Los Angeles County, 1.1 million low-income Americans and legal residents receive up to $200 per individual, or $668 per family of four, every month for groceries.
"That's probably only 50 to 55 percent of the people who are potentially eligible," social services director Sheryl Spiller said at a recent community forum in East Los Angeles. "We could very well double that."
When the poor forgo help, they are not the only ones who lose out.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which administers food stamps nationally, estimated that every $1 spent on CalFresh generates $1.79 in economic activity.
A study by California Food Policy Advocates in February calculated that if everyone eligible for CalFresh took advantage of it, the state would see $8.3 billion in additional economic activity.
But Brian Tam, CalFresh's management operations chief for the California Department of Social Services, said many fear -- wrongly -- that applying for the
handout would unleash federal immigration agents on their household.
"Many families continue to fear that they will lose their immigration status or have to repay the benefits, or be subject to deportation or ineligibility for U.S. citizenship," Tam said. "This is simply not true.
U.S. Customs and Immigration Services' L.A. chief of staff, Martha Flores, said undocumented immigrants can and should apply for benefits on behalf of their U.S.-born children without fear of repercussions.
"We just want to reiterate: U.S. citizen children are eligible to receive government benefits such as the CalFresh program and other benefits," she said. "That will not have an impact on the future immigration status of their parents."
Many dread stigma
At MEND, Yadira Robles, a 41-year-old assistant manager at a moving company, said she has been a U.S. citizen for nine years yet never considered signing up for CalFresh even after she lost her job during the recession.
Her Latino community in San Fernando had ingrained in her a fear of accepting handouts from the federal government.
"I heard people say, 'Oh, don't apply for food stamps because it's going to ruin your future,"' Robles
said. "I was struggling in terms of my rent, my necessities, but I didn't apply."
"I also did not want to be a burden," she said. "I preferred to work than get help."
Another woman at MEND, who asked that her name be withheld, said her family used to receive $380 a month in food stamps. She stopped taking the money, however, when she married an undocumented immigrant.
"I'm afraid it would affect him in the future," the 45-year-old from Pacoima said through a translator.
To help feed their family of six, including a teenager with special needs, she goes to the food bank about once a week.
California's participation rates in the federal food bank program are among the lowest in the country. Aside from worrying about immigration, many people reject the benefit because of the stigma attached to food stamps, which used to come in the form of embarrassing coupons but are now delivered through debit cards accepted at most grocery stores at markets.
MEND information and referral specialist Gabriel Ramos said culture is also a factor.
"Latinos are a very proud people, and it takes a lot for them to ask for help," he said. "There are housewives who come here to the food bank whose husbands don't know they come, or else they would be in trouble at home."
Fears of dependency
Jeffers Dodge, the president of the Los Angeles Conservatives Alliance, a group that promotes fiscal conservatism, limited government and free markets, warned against expanding the use of food stamps.
"The more the government spends on feeding people who need help -- which I'm not necessarily opposed to -- the bigger the government becomes," he said.
"The more money that the government spends, the more it needs in taxes from businesses, which end up creating fewer jobs, resulting in more people going into poverty and requiring food stamps," he added.
In Congress, both the House and Senate are considering separate bills that would slash billions from the federal food stamp program, known nationally as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
Whatever the fates of those pieces of legislation, social worker Eriberto Aranda with the nonprofit Alma Family Services in Monterey Park urged people to apply for the benefit if they need it.
He works with over a dozen special-needs adults, many of whom arrive for their sessions hungry. Many had been born in the U.S. to undocumented immigrant parents.
"It's a shame," Aranda said. "All these resources are out there to help them out, and they're not going out there because they're scared."
DPSS has streamlined the process of applying for food stamps. Applications can be submitted online at www.ladpss.org/dpss/calfresh.