A mother and daughter push a crate of food across the yard at El Verano Elementary School during a food distribution for families affected by October's planned power outages. (Anne Wernikoff for CalMatters)
Pacific Gas & Electric turned off power to Ana Patricia Rios’ neighborhood in Sonoma County for eight days in October, three at the beginning of the month and five near the end. The mother of three young boys watched twice as nearly all of the food in her refrigerator spoiled. She threw out at least $500 worth of meat, fruit, vegetables, salsas and other food that would have supplied her family with months of meals.
“It’s a big impact because we need the food that we lost,” Rios said in Spanish, two days after the lights finally came back on.
Similar losses occurred throughout Rios’ wooded, hilly neighborhood, which is mostly home to Hispanic families. Many are vineyard and hospitality workers, and sometimes several families share a house.
Making matters worse, last weekend, Rios received a PG&E alert that her family might be plunged into the dark once again this week. She decided to cook the one package of meat in her freezer, which is now mostly empty to avoid another colossal loss.
“Even if the electricity doesn’t arrive,” she said, “the bills do.”
Across California, low-income households like the Rios family faced hunger and financial crisis as the food in their refrigerators spoiled during October’s unprecedented, deliberate blackouts. Utility companies shut down the power in certain fire-prone communities during windy, dry conditions to reduce the risk of an electric line sparking a fire.
An inconvenience for many, losing hundreds of dollars of food was an economic disaster for others.
While many of the areas that lost power, such as parts of Marin County and the Napa Valley, tend to be wealthier than the rest of the state, tens of thousands of the affected households live on extremely tight budgets, according to a CalMatters analysis of census tracts touched by PG&E’s power outage that began on Oct. 26 and in some cases lasted through Oct. 31.
CalMatters’ analysis found that one in 10 residents and one in eight children in the affected census tracts live below the federal poverty level, which is $25,750 of annual income for a family of four. The estimates are based on PG&E’s maps of the approximate areas affected by the shutoffs and averaged data from the 2013 through 2017 annual American Community Survey conducted by the Census Bureau.
The Power Shutoffs
Several very poor communities lost power. In some of the sections of Vallejo, San Pablo, Berkeley, San Rafael, Santa Cruz, Clearlake, Redding, Arcata and Sonora where the lights went out, more than a third of the people live in poverty.
In some cases, people who were unable to replace their spoiled food faced immediate hunger. Many relied on local food banks, some of which lost their own power and had to throw out their food. Some schools had to shut down, so families like the Rioses had to feed children who usually eat free and reduced-price school meals. And many scrambled to pull together the November rent while also refilling their fridges. The elderly, ill and disabled struggled the most.
“The shutoffs not only taxed our network but deepened hunger among those already food insecure,” Andrew Cheyne, director of government affairs at the California Association of Food Banks, said in a state Senate committee hearing on Monday. “We cannot be there for everyone in need, and Californians are not refilling those refrigerators.”
The risk of hunger triggered by outages continues. On Wednesday morning, PG&E shut off power to about 50,000 customers in 11 Northern California counties.
Poverty level of areas affected by PG&E’s Oct. 26 planned blackouts:
Rios was one of more than 2.7 million Californians who lost power during October’s deliberate power outages. PG&E was responsible for most, while Southern California Edison (SCE) and San Diego Gas & Electric (SDG&E) each blacked out tens of thousands of customers.
Roughly 480,000 people, including 120,000 children and 81,000 seniors, live in poverty in the affected census tracts. However, that’s an overestimate of the number of poor people who actually lost power, given that many census tracts reach far beyond shutoff zones.
As wildfire risk persists, how utility companies will protect low-income customers from hunger and financial crisis is an open question.
Gov. Gavin Newsom called the planned outages “unacceptable.”
“We cannot continue to incur the economic losses, the potential health and human costs associated with these power shutoffs,” Newsom told CalMatters.
Bowing to a demand from Newsom, PG&E agreed to provide a one-time rebate of $100 for households and $250 for businesses affected by the first wave of outages that begin Oct. 9, plunging roughly 738,000 customers into darkness with limited notice and bungled communications.
“But will it meet the losses? In many cases it will not,” Newsom told CalMatters. “And that’s why it’s still inadequate. It was the least they could do under the circumstances.”
Sen. Scott Wiener, a San Francisco Democrat, has introduced a bill that would require utilities to reimburse customers for the costs they accrued during planned outages.
On Sunday, along with the warning about this week’s planned shutoff, PG&E announced it would donate $2 million to nonprofits that provide food, water, shelter and other services to “low-income children and families, communities of color, seniors, and tribal members” during disasters and planned outages.
“For the most vulnerable among us, those who depend on life-sustaining medical equipment or cannot afford to replace lost food, losing power for an extended period can come with considerable fear and safety risks,” said PG&E CEO and President Bill Johnson in prepared remarks at Monday’s hearing.
“We are working to narrow the scope and duration of future safety shutoffs and minimizing their customer impact as much as possible,” he said.
Families struggle to find food
Two days after the lights came back on, Rios’ family spent Día de Los Muertos — the day after Halloween and her son’s 12th birthday — volunteering at a food distribution at her children’s school in El Verano, an unincorporated community in Sonoma County. They hadn’t celebrated anything yet.
“I tell the kids, no, right now buying a costume is not a necessity. It’s first being able to buy food,” Rios said.
Between Rios’ job coordinating adult-ed classes and her husband’s job as a gardener, they usually bring in about $3,500 each month. That means they earn $1,000 above the federal poverty level for a family of five. Nevertheless, Rios said it’s a struggle to pull together the money for rent — which consumes nearly half of their income — and for food and monthly bills.
Plus, Rios had missed eight days of work due to the outages. Her husband lost four days of work because of the smoke from the Kincade Fire 40 miles north, which may have been sparked by PG&E equipment, despite the planned outages. Rios has relied heavily on food bank distributions to feed her family since.
That day at the El Verano Elementary School, nearly 250 families lined up to replace the food they had lost, filling boxes with potatoes, onions, milk, cheese, eggs and bread trucked in by the Redwood Empire Food Bank.
“They’ve lost all of the foods in their homes because our families can’t afford to buy generators to keep their refrigerators running all night,” said Maite Iturri, the school’s principal. “You end up with some pretty serious situations that are hard for people to recover from.”
Iturri said that 86% of students receive free or reduced-price breakfast and lunch at the school, but the meals were not available during the outages because the school was closed.
“The impact it has with people who are disenfranchised or marginalized to begin with is much greater than (for) families who are like, ‘Oh OK, well I’m going to go to Tahoe for the weekend,’” Iturri said. “These people aren’t going to Tahoe.”
Despite Sonoma’s reputation as a luxe destination for well-to-do wine lovers, nearly one in three county residents, or about 60,000 households, couldn’t afford three healthy meals a day last year, according to county estimates.
But only about 16,000 households receive food stamps. That means Sonoma County’s main tool for fighting hunger caused by the outages — providing replacement benefits to families on food stamps who had to throw away food — only goes so far. Over 3,000 county residents have claimed replacement food stamps to date.
Statewide, more than 49,000 households received an automatic replacement of food stamp benefits after PG&E’s Oct. 9 outage, amounting to $5,730,774. Counties are continuing to accept requests for replacement food stamp benefits from households affected by later outages.
Oscar Chavez, Sonoma County assistant director of human services, lost everything in his own refrigerator during the outages. His wife and four sons drove five hours south to stay with family in Bakersfield, while he stayed to work the county evacuation shelters for the Kincade Fire. He bought most of his meals at restaurants and invested in a generator to keep warm at night.
But he knows that many Sonoma families couldn’t afford those surprise expenses. Chavez said he was particularly worried about undocumented families, who often don’t qualify for or are reluctant to access safety net benefits and disaster relief.
“I think this is perhaps a new reality for us, the potential of power shutoffs with greater frequency, so I think we’ll want to really think about how we can provide additional safeguards or supports for vulnerable populations,” Chavez said. “We have a lot to learn. This is new territory for us.”
Food banks hit hard, too
In response to the strains of the outages and other emergencies, the California Association of Food Banks has requested a one-time state investment of $32 million to fund backup power and emergency supply for food banks, said Cheyne.
Redwood Empire Food Bank distributed about 300,000 pounds of food to 25,000 people affected by the fire and outages across Sonoma, Lake and Mendocino counties as of Nov. 8. The San Diego Food Bank distributed $50,000 in cash cards to affected families. In Shasta County, the food bank saw a 34% spike in food demand in October.
In Humboldt County, the Food for People food bank lost power twice last month for a total of four days, said Executive Director Anne Holcomb.It serves about 10% of the roughly 136,000 residents of Humboldt County, where one in five people live in poverty.
With almost no advance notice before the first 24-hour outage on Oct. 9, the food bank was able to load most perishables into refrigerated trucks, but had to throw out 60 pounds of meat and nearly 3,000 eggs, Holcomb said. That first round of outages, though shorter, led to the largest losses, because many of the county’s poorest residents had just done a big food shop after receiving their food stamps or Social Security checks on the first of the month.
“Particularly if you’re already living close to the edge financially, if you just bought $30 or $40 worth of groceries and it goes bad, that’s a significant loss,” Holcomb said.
“The number one way (the utilities) can prevent food loss is letting customers know in advance,” said Commissioner Martha Guzman Aceves. “It’s clear that there’s been an impact here that could have been reduced from my perspective if there had been proper noticing.”
Eating the food during the outages could make people sick because bacteria can build up without refrigeration. During an outage, most food will stay cold for no more than four hours in a refrigerator and two days in a freezer, according to federal guidelines.
“I know it’s very hard for people to have to sacrifice all this food,” said Linda Harris, a food microbiologist at UC Davis.
The consequences of eating spoiled food include vomiting and diarrhea. “If you think that there’s a risk, then throwing it away is the safest thing to do,” Harris said.
Preparing for the next blackout
Rios said she changed the way she shops. “I learned to no longer buy in volume.” It’s more expensive to shop every few days, especially because she generally drives about an hour to find the best prices. But her family can’t afford to empty out a full freezer again.
Having lived through the terror-filled evacuations of the North Bay fires two years earlier, she understands why utilities cut power to prevent wildfire. But she doubts whether PG&E had taken into account how families are affected and whether the shutoffs actually work.
“You think if it’s for your safety, to prevent a bigger disaster, that’s good,” said Rios. “At the same time, it doesn’t make sense because we see that the accidents keep happening.”
Jackie Botts is a journalist at CalMatters. This article is part of The California Divide, a collaboration among newsrooms examining income inequity and economic survival in California.
CalMatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.