In a settlement approved the U.S. District Court on Friday, the U.S. Department of Agriculture agreed to extend its emergency food stamp program to help victims of last month's riots.
Beginning next week, food stamps will be available to more people, including immigrants, elderly or disabled people on Social Security, and those able to show a riot-related loss of income or food. The settlement also extends the deadline to July 15 for riot victims to apply for benefits.
The agreement came after nearly a week of negotiations between the federal agency and civil rights groups, which had filed a class-action lawsuit last month alleging that the Bush Administration had illegally denied food stamps to riot victims.
"It's a disgrace it took the federal government five weeks to respond to the plight of innocent victims," said Mark D. Rosenbaum of the ACLU Foundation of Southern California after a hearing before District Judge Mariana R. Pfaelzer.
The Department of Agriculture had already provided extra food and food stamp allotments. But officials are willing to do more, said Sharon Levinson, regional administrator of the department's Food and Nutrition Service in San Francisco. "We want to be responsive."
After the riots, the department denied a request by county and state officials to implement an emergency food assistance program, saying that food shortages did not exist.
After the lawsuit was announced, the federal agency relaxed some of its eligibility requirements. But attorneys from the American Civil Liberties Union, the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles and the Western Center on Law & Poverty contended that the program was too limited and sought a federal court injunction.
Last week, Pfaelzer ordered both sides to negotiate and to return to court Friday, saying she would make a ruling if no settlement was reached. The two sides reached their agreement at 6 a.m. Friday.
Although it has been five weeks since the riots, the federal aid is not coming too late, said attorney Katherine E. Meiss of the Western Center. "Obviously, people can't be compensated for the hunger they felt in the past month, but for many people the disaster is still with them," she said.
Rosenbaum said people could call a toll free number, 1-800-499-1163, starting Monday to learn whether they are eligible for the program.