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Letter from the Editor: Staying Humble

Editor in Chief Seth Combs on the June issue of San Diego Magazine

By Seth Combs

Editor's Letter-0622-Snap Benefits Card

Editor’s Letter-0622-Snap Benefits Card

A little over two years ago, I was applying for food stamps.

Well, actually, they’re not called food stamps anymore. That’s a bit of an antiquated term. There are no stamps. Rather, I was signing up for CalFresh, the state’s version of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), a federal assistance program that provides food benefits to low-income households. I was one of those households.

Even now, there’s a certain sense of shame I feel in divulging this. As if I’d done something wrong or took advantage of a social safety net that I support with all my heart, but never thought I’d have to use. I fear the judgment or the pity that this type of information might elicit from readers, not to mention my friends and family. But it’s the truth and I need to get over it.

For the sake of clarity, let me set the scene: I was only a few months removed from my previous job as editor of San Diego CityBeat, a local alt-weekly that locals may remember for its acerbic takes on politics, music, and just about everything else (our publisher, CCO, and food critic, Troy Johnson, also got his start at CityBeat). I had been unceremoniously let go from the paper, along with most of the staff, when CityBeat’s parent company was bought by an Arizona-based media conglomerate that, from what I gather, only wanted to kill it.

I was on unemployment (EDD) for a few months, applying to any media job that wasn’t offering to pay in “exposure.” I even applied for a job at a dating app that was supposed to be for people who traveled a lot. It would match you with someone who also traveled a lot, and just happened to be in the same city as you were. Or something like that. I don’t know. It was dumb and convoluted and predictably went nowhere.

Then the pandemic hit. Even the companies that were paying in “exposure” were going under. Hiring sites were as barren as the toilet paper aisle at Vons. My unemployment was running out. While there were rumblings that the federal government was going to extend EDD benefits, this was still down the road.

Then I got evicted. I had been able to pay my rent on time with my unemployment benefits, but my landlords—a young couple whose parents had bought them the apartment property as an investment—decided to cash in on that investment. They basically sold it at a fire sale price. Perhaps they feared the ongoing pandemic, perhaps they were feeling a little financially insecure themselves. Whatever the case, one of the stipulations of the sale was that I had to go. I’d lived there for over 20 years.

I was lucky in that I had some friends who’d just purchased a property in East County, and I was able to move into a little cabin bungalow in the back. But I still had very little income coming in. I literally didn’t know where my next meal was coming from, often relying on the kindness of friends and family. That’s when I swallowed my pride and applied for CalFresh benefits.

When readers envision people on federal assistance programs, they probably don’t instinctively think of a 40-something year-old white guy, and that is something that needs to be corrected. The days of race-baiting politicians like then-California governor Ronald Reagan screaming about “welfare queens” are over. There are a lot of takeaways and lessons we should dwell on when it comes to epochs like the Great Recession and the COVID-19 pandemic. One of them should be: everyone, and I mean everyone, is a few moves away from being destitute. A few steps removed from desperation.

Things are better these days. I’ve got this great new job at a magazine devoted to the city I love. As we were putting together this issue, marveling at the amazing photos and stories of restaurant culture, I have the perspective of where I once was. When I tell stories about food, I’ll always keep in mind the programs and organizations that are out here making sure no one goes hungry.

Orgs like the Food4All campaign, which is trying to get EBT assistance for undocumented farm workers who are picking the produce that makes it to our plates. Or local nonprofits like Feeding San Diego, Meals on Wheels, and San Diego Food Bank. These organizations have been on the front lines feeding people both pre- and post-COVID. They save lives. If readers are in a better place now than when the pandemic was raging, please support these orgs.

While I haven’t used my CalFresh EBT card in a while, I’ll always keep it in my wallet as a reminder that we’re all a few moves, a few steps away from needing a really strong and supportive hand.

Stay humble, but no one should stay hungry.

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