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Hunger in the Valley

Families in the nation’s top ag producing region struggle to put food on the table

Hunger in the Valley

The San Joaquin Valley is one of the top producing agricultural regions, but it is also one of the leading areas of food insecurity. On a monthly basis Turlock residents line up outside of the Unit...


POSTED April 18, 2011 4:39 p.m.

* The following story won first place in the Writing category of the California Newspaper Publishers Association's Better Newspapers Contest 2010. 

On any given day thousands of gallons of milk, tons of nuts, and truckloads of fruit roll out of the Central Valley headed to dinner tables across America and the world. And on any given night, thousands of Central Valley residents go to bed feeling the pangs of hunger.

It is a bitter irony that one of the world’s leading producers of food also is home to one of America’s largest populations of people dealing with the daily struggle of finding enough food for themselves and their families. At a time when the Central Valley is experiencing one of the worst unemployment rates in the state and a growing number of families and individuals are living below the federal government’s poverty line, the hunger situation in the region is reaching new magnitudes. The economy’s downward spiral and resulting recession have stretched the boundaries of hunger and sent more and more people into the long lines outside of food banks and soup kitchens.

”Who is the face of hunger?” asked Mike Mallory, the chief executive officer of the Second Harvest Food Bank in Manteca. “Well, it’s the unemployed, the underemployed, a neighbor, a co-worker, or a relative. It could be someone you least expect. The people who were donating to us last year are now recipients.”

A recently released report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture provides a grim picture of the growing prevalence of hunger in America. The Economic Research Service annual report on Household Food Security for 2008 revealed startling results even to those who have spent years advocating to end hunger.

More than 49 million Americans, including nearly 17 million children, are classified as food insecure. The USDA defines food insecurity as a disruption to a person’s eating patterns and a reduced food intake for an extended time period. The survey showed one out of every seven households had difficulties obtaining enough to eat. The food insecurity rate of 2008 was at its highest level since the USDA started the surveys in 1995. In a year’s time the number of Americans who experienced a shortage of food supplies grew from 11 percent to 16 percent, representing 13 million more people who went hungry at some time during the last year.

”It is tragic that so many people in this nation of plenty don’t have access to adequate amounts of nutritious food,” said Vicki Escarra, the president and CEO of Feeding America, the nation’s leading hunger-relief organization. “Although these new numbers are staggering, it should be noted that these numbers reflect the state of the nation one year ago, in 2008. Since then, the economy has significantly weakened and there are likely many more people struggling with hunger than this report states.”

The prevalence of people coping with food shortages has become abundantly clear in the Central Valley. Mallory, who oversees Second Harvest, the food bank that supplies food to 228 agencies in seven counties, including Stanislaus, San Joaquin, and Merced, said the organization has seen a 30 percent increase in food requests over the last year.

”People sometimes tend to look at hunger through rose-colored glasses and think of it as a holiday issue,” Mallory said. “But hunger is 365 days a year. Hunger has no holiday.”

Hunger by the numbers

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said the USDA’s report findings reflected the rise in unemployment rates in 2008 and the number of people working at low wage jobs. The survey unequivocally found that poverty was the fundamental cause of food insecurity and hunger. The report also shows that just over half of the qualifying households took advantage of government food assistance programs available to them.

”During challenging economic times, the pool of those in need of vital food assistance expands,” Vilsack stated in a press release. “USDA’s role — along with our partners — is to ensure individuals do not fall through the cracks, and can access nutritional services with dignity and respect.”

Some of the key findings of the USDA survey.

— There were 6.7 million households in America experiencing hunger in 2008, and of those, representing 506,000 households or one-third, were children and adults struggling with very low food security or outright hunger.

— The other two-thirds of food insecure households obtained enough food to avoid substantial disruptions by using a variety of coping strategies like eating a less varied diet, participating in food assistance programs such as food stamps, and getting emergency food from community organizations.

— The prevalence of food insecurity varied considerably among different types of households. Rates of food insecurity were substantially higher than the national average in households where the income was below or near the federal poverty line; households with children headed by a single parent; and African-American and Hispanic households.

— Food insecurity was more common in large cities and rural areas than in suburban areas and other outlying areas around large cities.

— Food secure households spent more for food than food insecure households. In 2008, the median U.S. household spent $43.75 per person for food each week, which is 14 percent higher than the cost of the USDA’s Thrifty Food Plan. The median food insecure household spent 10 percent less than the cost of the USDA plan.

— Fifty-five percent of the food insecure households said they had used one or more of the nation’s food assistance programs — the National School Lunch Program, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (food stamps), and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children.

— The USDA National School Lunch program serves about 31 million children a healthy meal each school day.

— Nearly half of all infants in the United States participate in the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children program.

 

 — About 20 percent of food insecure households obtained emergency food from a food pantry at some time during the year and 2.6 percent ate one or more meals at an emergency food kitchen.

 

— When food is scarce in a household, the survey found that adults will often shield children from the effects by eating less themselves. Even with that trend, 17 million children lived in food insecure households in 2008, up by 4 million from the year before. The number of children who experienced hunger rose from 700,000 in 2007 to approximately 1.1 million in 2008.

  

”When I look at the numbers it’s overwhelming,” Mallory said. “It’s scary how quickly these numbers are going up, but you can’t allow yourself to think that you won’t be able to feed these people. We all just have to step up and work together to feed them.”

 

Unfortunately for the San Joaquin Valley, the numbers are even bleaker when it comes to hunger and poverty. According to the 2003 California Health Interview Survey, the percentage of people experiencing food insecurity was 39.2 percent of the population and those dealing with hunger were 12.3 percent of the Valley’s population. Broken down by county, Stanislaus had 38.6 percent of the population as food insecure and 15.4 percent as hungry. San Joaquin had 41 percent reporting food insecurity and 11.4 percent reporting hunger, and Merced was at 34.9 percent for food insecure and 9.2 percent for hunger. Those numbers have assuredly gone up as the economy faltered, according to local emergency food providers.

 

”Every month we are seeing new people applying for emergency food boxes and more people are coming in with emergency referrals while they wait for their food stamp application to be processed,” said Barbara Bawanan, director of the Turlock United Samaritans Foundation. “As the economy started changing, more people started relying on our services for food. If you can’t afford food on your own, you have to find it somewhere.”

 

Every month the foundation doles out emergency food boxes to residents. In 2007, they handed out 6,665 boxes and in 2008, it reached 7,852 boxes. So far, through October, the foundation has given out 6,484 emergency food boxes for 2009, Bawanan said. The Daily Bread food trucks, which delivers lunches throughout Stanislaus County five days a week, gave out more than 422,000 lunches last year. Bawanan said the number for 2009 will be lower because several trucks had to be off the road for repairs this year, but that the need was still high, if not even higher.

 

”People just can’t afford to buy food right now and need assistance,” said Maris Sturtevant, the chief operating manager at United Samaritans.

  

The effects of hunger

 

Sixty-two year old Linda knows all too well about having to rely on a food bank to put food on her table. The Turlock resident, who asked that her last name not be used, worked as a clerk in the area for 30 years before she was laid-off this year. To make matters worse, her husband was laid-off on the same day. For six months they have both been out of work and have found no prospects.

 

”It’s been a real struggle trying to find a new job,” Linda said. “I’m 62-years old. Nobody wants to hire me, they want someone young.”

 

Linda said her family never had problems with food before they were laid-off, but as the months have gone by, the ability to put food into their pantry has been more and more difficult. Ultimately, Linda made the decision to seek help from the United Samaritans in September. On Tuesday, she picked up one of the emergency food boxes that are stocked with three days worth of food. She said her and her husband will stretch that three-day supply out and when it runs out, they’ll turn to family members who might have a bit to spare.

 

”At first it was real hard to come ask for help, but now I don’t care, because I look around and everybody is in the same boat,” she said.

 

The effects of living in a food insecure household can vary from the worrisome to the devastating. A health policy study by the University of California, Los Angeles found that children living in a food insecure home miss more school and on average have poorer grades. Both children and teens in low food security homes experience more emotional problems and more adults suffer from anxiety and depression. The UCLA study found that individuals living in food insecure homes are less likely to fill prescription medicines and seek medical care.

 

Ironically, the study also found that households dealing with food insecurity are more likely to have overweight or obese adults, because they cannot afford healthier options like fresh produce.

 

”Too many households in California lack the means to put sufficient food on the table every day and the consequences affect all Californians,” said Gail Harrison, professor of community health sciences at UCLA and senior research scientist for the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research. “Consequences of food insecurity include not only poor nutrition, but also physical and emotional illness requiring greater use of medical care, increased complications from chronic diseases such as diabetes, and poor school performance among children and adolescents in these households.”

  

Awareness raises hopes

 

Walking through some of the empty aisles at Second Harvest, Mallory hopes that as people become more aware of the growing hunger problem in the area, more people will decide to get involved.

 

”We need people to donate food and money and volunteer,” Mallory said. “But we also need people to advocate. Talk to your family, friends and churches, because this problem is never going to go away until we all step up to face it.

 

”Hunger is a world problem, but by starting at the local level we can begin to raise awareness that will benefit both our community and the issue at large.”

 

To contact Sabra Stafford, e-mail sstafford@turlockjournal.com or call 634-9141 ext. 2002.

 

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