How Santa Barbara Failed its Older Adults and Small Businesses
By Karinna Carrillo
On April 24, 2020, Governor Newsom announced the launch of a new program, Great Plates, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The program was the first of its kind in the nation and aimed to support two of the most vulnerable and hardest hit populations of the pandemic: older adults and small businesses.
Great Plates was created to help seniors and older adults at high risk of COVID-19 stay indoors and avoid unnecessary exposure in grocery stores and restaurants by delivering three nutritious meals a day, seven days a week from partnering local restaurants. Unlike other food programs, this program was far more robust and went a step further by also providing crucial stimulus efforts to local businesses struggling in these trying and unprecedented times. As stated on the Great Plates website, partnering restaurants were able to be reimbursed up to $66 per day per person. Only catch was that the program had to be administered by cities and counties.
Solvang implemented it, then Ventura County, Los Angeles, and San Diego, but not Santa Barbara. Week after week, the list of cities who adopted the program grew but never to include Santa Barbara. I phoned our Public Health Department, local COVID-19 hotline, and 211 endlessly looking for answers, but there were none. Nobody knew if we were adopting the program, who was leading it, or who I could call to learn more.
Eventually I contacted Congressman Salud Carbajal and Supervisor Gregg Hart, highlighted the importance of the program and our lack of any equivalent program. Carbajal noted that the issue was a city matter that I would have to address with local officials.
Despite continued pressure, Supervisor Hart fails to recognize that our existing programs are not nearly as extensive as what Great Plates could be offering and that older adults are advised against visiting existing food distribution sites as they are hot spots for COVID-19 transmission.
Current programs supporting Santa Barbara include: the Community Action Commission delivery of one meal a day (five days a week) and the FoodBank’s pantry good delivery (twice a month). There was also the short-lived “Chef’s Kitchen” program, which similar to Great Plates, partnered with restaurants, but only included ACME Hospitality and only delivered 3 frozen meals a week. The short-lived program only lasted around a month (ended sometime in June), meanwhile, funding for Great Plates continues to be extended by the state of California.
The Santa Barbara Foodbank’s Director of Community Programs & Education confirmed all of my concerns: existing programs are incredibly costly, funded through donations, and can never be as robust as Great Plates, but city legislators did not approve of the time and economic investments needed for the establishment of Great Plates Santa Barbara for it was too much of an economic investment.
Frustrated with the lack of support from local elected officials, I took my outreach to the office of Senator Hannah-Beth Jackson. “Wow, I am a young, public health professional, and it has been so challenging for me to get any straightforward answers, I can’t imagine how this process would be like for any older adult” I told Hannah Sullivan of Senator Jackson’s office. “That’s where you’re wrong. Older adults wouldn’t be asking so many questions, they would just be happy with what we give them” Sullivan said.
Public health is about developing innovative solutions that support the greater good, and Supervisor Hart fails to hear the concerns of some of his most vulnerable constituents. A program able to stimulate so many local restaurants with thousands of dollars, so many workers and older adults must be worth the time and money to administer. I could not help but wonder if there was an economic relationship with ACME hospitality impeding Supervisor Hart’s ability to act.
“After reading the suggestion of impropriety, I do not think that any further conversation will be productive” wrote Hart’s office.
“The role of our elected officials is to serve as our advocates and representatives to state and federal leaders; honest communication between our district representatives and constituents is key” I wrote back to Supervisor Hart. I never received any further communication.
When asked later on about why Santa Barbara did not invest in Great Plates, they clarified, “There would be significant out of pocket costs to the county…[and] there would be a disincentive for restaurants to continue to participate in our current programs as the allowable costs for the state program (Great Plates) are higher (i.e. they would make more money participating in the state program).”
Santa Barbara, we need this program to ensure the safety of our older adult communities and the financial security of our small businesses, but we also need elected officials who care. We need legislators who work for our interests and are invested in creating impactful programs that address all of our needs--even the most vulnerable of our city--regardless of the time investment needed to address the issue. Unprecedented times call for unprecedented solutions.
Supervisor Hart, as we continue to topple new daily case records and threaten hospital capacity, how can we work to establish not only this program, but also promise to consider the safety of all of Santa Barbara, not just our most wealthy, in future programming and legislation?
Originally from Santa Barbara, California, Karinna M. Carrillo is a second-year Master of Public Health candidate at the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health and graduate of the University of Southern California with a Bachelor of Science in Health Promotion and Disease Prevention. Her study focus includes environmental, economic, and social justice advocacy and the creation of equitable and innovative policy.
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