More and more Alameda County children are going hungry and more working people are unable to make ends meet, according to a report released Tuesday by the Alameda County Community Food Bank.
According to the report – “Hunger: The Faces and the Facts” – 32 percent of the parents who receive Food Bank aid say that their children sometimes miss meals because they have no food or money. In 1997, only 9 percent of parents answered likewise.
The sharp increase – over 240 percent in the last four years – could even be understated, according to Food Bank Executive Director Suzan Bateson.
“We think that number may be low,” she said. “Parents may not admit that their children miss meals, because they might have a lot of shame about not being able to feed their children.”
The number of working people who seek Food Bank aid has also risen since the 1997 study. In that year, 24 percent of food recipients came from a household in which at least one member had a job; this year, the figure was 37 percent.
The new report, which was presented to the public at the Food Bank warehouse at the Oakland Army Base, is the result of months of effort by Food Bank staff and volunteers. Throughout the spring of 2001, researchers surveyed the 211 member agencies that receive Food Bank donations in bulk and distributes it to the needy.
The researchers also directly interviewed 439 individuals who get Food Bank aid.
Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown, Assemblymember Wilma Chan (D-Oakland), and representatives from the offices of Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-San Francisco) and Representative Pete Stark (D-Fremont) attended the presentation.
Artensia Barry, a Berkeley resident who helped conduct the survey, receives food assistance from the Berkeley Food Pantry, one of organizations affiliated with the Food Bank.
“The report shows that there are a lot of things that we need to address, immediately,” she said on Friday. “Nobody in government is really talking about this issue – they're financing the war, and forgetting about their backyard.”
But according to Second Harvest, a nationwide food aid advocacy group, Congress may soon address one of the report’s key recommendations.
The report found that while 80 percent of Food Bank clients are eligible for food stamps, only 21 percent actually receive them.
Bateson said on Tuesday that the food stamp program is underfunded and too difficult for many people, especially those with jobs, to use. Food stamp offices are only open between the hours of 9 a.m. and 5 p.m., she said, and the program requires recipients to come to the office for monthly evaluations.
“People can’t take time off from work to go do monthly reporting,” she said. “That’s just one of the serious accessibility barriers to Food Stamp clients.”
In addition, Bateson said, the new report shows that the food stamp allotment only provides 2.2 weeks worth of food for the average Alameda County family.
The report recommends that federal nutrition programs such as the food stamp program be strengthened, and barriers to receiving food stamps be lowered.
“A strengthened food stamp program could really help programs like ours,” said Bateson.
Eleanor Thompson, senior policy associate with Second Harvest, said on Tuesday that it looks like many of those concerns will be addressed in the new Farm Bill of 2001.
Specifically, she said, the Senate committee currently working on the bill is looking to greatly expand funding for the food stamp program. Numbers are not yet final, but some powerful senators are proposing up to $12 billion dollars for food stamps over the next ten years – an increase of over $8 billion over the last 10.
Still, according to Bateson, the coming months look like they will be lean ones for food assistance in Alameda County. The recession has hit the Bay Area harder than most places in the United States, and the failure of one particular business was a great blow to the Food Bank.
“Before Webvan went out of business, they were giving us 1 million pounds of food a year,” she said. “That was about one-twelfth of our total food donations.”
The increased demand for services, Bateson said, the Food Bank will have to struggle to keep people fed through the winter.
J.C. Orton, of Berkeley’s “Knight on the Street” program, said Tuesday that attendance at his group’s street soup kitchens is definitely up.
“Last year, we had probably 100 people,” he said. “This year, it’s 150, easy – and we’re just in the first weeks.”