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Hunger On the Rise In Alameda County By SUZANNE LA BARRE

Tuesday February 28, 2006

Nearly a quarter of a million residents went hungry in Alameda County last year, a new report said. 

A study released by the Alameda County Community Food Bank last week shows that 40,000 residents seek emergency food assistance each week, including 16,000 children and 6,144 seniors, many of whom skip meals because there isn’t enough food on the table. 

“It’s a sad fact that more children and seniors in our community are missing meals,” said Suzan Bateson, executive director of the county food bank, in a prepared statement.  

Part of a nationwide study, the report surveyed 407 local food assistance recipients in the first detailed portrait of hunger in Alameda County since 2001. The county food bank, which distributes foodstuff to 300 local pantries, soup kitchens and shelters, conducts the study every four years. 

Among the findings, many who received food assistance are the working poor, and nearly half report they’ve had to choose between eating and paying rent. 

Allison Pratt, director of policy and services, said one of the most alarming statistics is the sheer volume of residents seeking help, up 30 percent from 2001. 

“The number of people we’re seeing has gone up significantly,” she said. 

Pratt speculates that the skyrocketing cost of subsistence in the Bay Area is a major contributing factor. 

“Our cost of living is so much higher,” she said. “We have a lot of people who fall into the gap, who are earning too much to get food stamps but not enough to put food on the table.” 

According to the study, the median monthly income for food assistance recipients is $800; roughly three-fifths live below the federal poverty line. 

The report also details the underuse of federal nutrition benefits. 

One in five households receives food stamps, but an estimated 70 percent qualify. This is virtually unchanged from data released in 2001, when one in five households secured food stamps while 80 percent qualified.  

Yet nationally, food stamp use is up.  

According to the federal study, also released last week and jointly conducted by America’s Second Harvest, The Nation’s Food Bank Network and Mathmatica Policy Research, 35 percent of the nation’s food assistance recipients participated in the food stamp program in 2005. 

In 2001, Bateson told the Daily Planet the food stamp program is underfunded and difficult for Alameda County residents to navigate, a sentiment she echoed in a phone interview Friday. But she said the county food bank has been working with local agencies to improve accessibility and awareness. 

“We wanted to use that information (from 2001) to encourage more populations in Alameda County to become aware of the food stamp program and over the past four years, we have worked assiduously with the people in social services and Alameda County and I think we’re improving our enrollment,” she said. 

In addition to unused federal food benefits, Bateson said the study has shed light on the food bank’s need to address the hunger afflicting both senior citizens and the working poor. 

Van Yazarian, 66, lives off Social Security and after paying rent he says he takes home $200.  

“It’s barely enough to buy groceries,” he said. So Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, he frequents the McGee Baptist Church at 1640 Stuart St., where he piles meat, potatoes, macaroni and leafy greens onto a plate and lunches among fellow Berkeleyans who are unable to make ends meet. 

On Friday at 12:30 p.m., the backroom of McGee Baptist was abuzz with hungry residents young and old enjoying a hot meal.  

Many have been coming for years, said chef Norman Franklin, who’s been turning out “down home cooking” at the church for nine and a half years. Diners call him Mr. Franklin. 

But recently he’s seen a spike in clientele, particularly among families and children.  

“We used to see 140, 150, now we see 180 to 200” people a day, he said. Some of them are as young as 5 or 6. Many are senior citizens. 

Rosalind Smith has noticed a busier dining room, too. She’s been coming to McGee Baptist Church for three years, and said of recent days, “It’s very, very crowded.” 

She’s not sure why the upsurge, but ventured a guess:  

“There are hungry people out there,” she said, adding with a laugh, “And Mr. Franklin is a good cook.”