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Food Bank Finds More Hunger in Alameda County

By Lydia Gans
Wednesday January 26, 2011 - 04:04:00 PM

The holiday season is over and the good people who donated food and clothes and toys and money and who volunteered with soup kitchens to prepare and serve festive a dinner for the poor and hungry have gone back to their usual routines. Until the next holiday season brings out the public conscience, the poor and hungry continue their daily struggle to feed themselves and their families. 

Food insecurity – “limited or inadequate ability to obtain nutritionally adequate and safe foods; the inability to acquire those foods in a socially acceptable way” is rampant in the less developed countries, but it is increasingly occurring here. For people who are homeless it is a factor in their daily lives. Their stories illustrate what it means. “Flower” is vegetarian. She stays at the winter shelter on the army base and in other shelters during the summer months. Most shelters offer at least one meal, but few are vegetarian. Anne Marie has her meals at the churches but it's almost a full time occupation just keeping track of the various days and times and places the meals are served. Yukon, who lives in his vehicle, goes to church meals when he can but he's taking a computer class which meets at meal times so he has to buy food, but junk food is pretty much all that's available. A look at food outlets in Alameda county finds 53% are fast food restaurants, 30% convenience stores, 13% supermarkets, only 4% are produce stores or farmers markets. Richard dumpster dives, has been for doing it for years, he says. He also forages for plants in the wild – he has become knowledgeable about good edibles that grow in our hills. 

It's not only homeless people confronting food insecurity. Allison Pratt, Director of Policy and Services at the Alameda County Community Food Bank has the numbers. The Food Bank supplies food to 275 member agencies which either serve meals or distribute bags of groceries. Every four years they do an extensive, in-depth survey of their clients. In 2010 they found the food bank was serving 49,000 people a week compared to 40,000 in the previous survey. And compared to an average of 1 in 8 served nationwide through a network of food bank agencies, Alameda county serves 1 in 6. Pratt points out that “... given the increase in demand the agencies that receive food are having to stretch those resources longer so they have longer lines. Lots of agencies don't want to turn people away so the bag of food gets smaller and people come back more often.” 

The effects of food insecurity extend beyond the individuals actually facing hunger. Almost half the food bank clients are children and teens. It is known that a hungry child does poorly in school. More than that, numerous studies have found that inadequate nutrition has a lasting impact on the psychological and physical health of growing children. Ultimately as adults they will need more medical and social services, putting a drain on public resources. The survey found that “25% of households with children report that their child was hungry at least once during the past year and they couldn't afford enough food.” 

The current economic crisis is spreading the problem of hunger beyond families that are totally destitute. Forty-two percent of the households served by the food bank have at least one person who is employed yet they do not have enough money to buy all the food they need. Average size of households has increased from 2.6 to 3.4 members since the last survey. Client households with 6 or more members jumped from 2.5% to 12.8%. That represents a striking demographic change. Seniors too, are feeling the pain. Sixty-seven percent of client households with seniors are experiencing food insecurity. 

The food bank clients get meals and grocery bags from the member agencies. A person in need can call the help line 1-800-877-3663 or 1-800-877-FOOD, Monday-Friday, 9 A.M to 4 P.M. and get a same day referral to get food in their neighborhood. The need continues to increase. Pratt reports that emergency food referrals have doubled between 2007 and 2009 and increased by another 12% in 2010. 

The federal food stamp program offers some help. The food bank helps people work through the application process but most clients receiving food stamps find the benefits provide for only about half their needs. She says “400 to 500 people a month are calling us for the first time. A lot of times these are people who have never reached out for help of any kind, people who have sold their very last stick of furniture before reaching out for help.” 

Clearly local and volunteer programs cannot fill the need. Massive government input is needed. The food bank has a strong advocacy program to try to make this happen. Their report concludes with the statement decrying “the existence of poverty and hunger in the wealthiest nation ... It is increasingly unfeasible to place the burden of eradicating hunger only on those who have the resources and the will for philanthropy. … It is the responsibility of every level of government..”