Hunger and Food Insecurity on the Rise: East Bay /San Francisco

Lydia Gans and Buford Buntin share reflections on living hungry in the San Francisco Bay Area. The economic crisis is spreading the problem of hunger beyond families that are totally destitute. An estimated 42 percent of the households served by the Food Bank have at least one person who is employed, yet they still do not have enough money to buy all the food they need.

by Lydia Gans

The holiday season is long gone, and the good people who donated food and clothes and toys and money and who volunteered with soup kitchens to serve a festive 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 — defined as the “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 in our own land. Hunger is all around us in our own neighborhoods.

For people who are homeless, food insecurity 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 to those living on a limited income, and with no kitchen. A look at food outlets in Alameda County finds 53 percent are fast food restaurants, 30 percent convenience stores, 13 percent supermarkets, and only 4 percent are produce stores or farmers markets.

Richard goes dumpster diving, and has been doing so 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.

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 Food Bank’s survey found that “25 percent 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 economic crisis is spreading the problem of hunger beyond families that are totally destitute. An estimated 42 percent of the households served by the Food Bank have at least one person who is employed, yet they still do not have enough money to buy all the food they need.

The average size of households served has increased from 2.6 to 3.4 members since the last survey. Client households with 6 or more members jumped from 2.5 percent to 12.8 percent. That represents a striking demographic change. Seniors too, are feeling the pain. Sixty-seven percent of client households with seniors are experiencing food insecurity.

Clients of the Alameda County Food Bank get meals and grocery bags from its member agencies. A person in need can call the help line at 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 receive food in their neighborhood.

The need continues to increase. Pratt reports that emergency food referrals have doubled between 2007 and 2009 and then increased by another 12 percent in 2010.

The federal food stamp program offers some help, even though most clients receiving food stamps find the benefits provide for only about half their needs.

“We have invested a lot in connecting families that are eligible for federal programs like the food stamp program to those resources,” Pratt explains. “A lot of barriers can be taken care of with food stamps — they can shop at a grocery store, can choose the food that they want, for example a diabetic, or someone with heart disease or a vegetarian. And they can shop at convenient times. Another advantage of that is it takes less from our network.”

Another sign of the serious increase in hunger in our community is that “400 to 500 people a month are calling us for the first time,” Pratt says. “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.”

Along with staff, the Food Bank relies on many volunteers to carry out the program and handle the calls. In the process, the volunteers are gaining skills with computers and outreach and often dealing with needy and desperate people.

Adequate nutrition means more than just calories. Whenever possible, the Food Bank distributes fresh fruits and vegetables, much of it coming from nearby farms. According to Pratt, the agency distributed about 20 million pounds of food last year and about half of that was fresh produce. They recently acquired an additional building at the Edgewater Drive facility so they can they can handle even more fresh fruits and vegetables. And in line with their commitment to public health, they don’t distribute soda or carbonated beverages.

Clearly, local and volunteer programs alone cannot fill the need. Massive government input is needed if we are to overcome hunger and food insecurity. The Food Bank has a strong advocacy program to try to make this happen.

Their latest report concludes with a 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.”

Thoughts While Standing in the Meal Line at Glide Memorial

by Buford Buntin

In the morning, I head down to Glide Memorial Church’s soup kitchen in San Francisco. I kept just enough money, or maybe not quite enough, to get me through until next Tuesday or Wednesday, when my S.F. Unified School District substitute aide check arrives.

I made a little side money, but most of it goes to my landlady. I’ve been working for almost two weeks, from 9:20 a.m. to 3:20 p.m., in an alternative school in the Sunset District of San Francisco.

I get my breakfast at Glide around 8 a.m., then head out on the N-Judah streetcar, which I’ve also taken downtown from where I live. I’m better off than a lot of people, but making ends meet is tough, and the rope is a little frayed.

This particular teaching job hasn’t been so great, but I have the option, as a substitute, of canceling it online in the computer room at a college where I used to work, but was replaced as an adjunct English teacher. I can take another substitute job, which is usually available.

But right now, I stand in the food line with everybody else.

Several issues need to be addressed after my morning at Glide’s soup kitchen. How do we, as a caring society, assuming we are, provide services for the mentally disabled? Another obvious one: How is this country that routinely throws away tons of food daily going to shift the remains to those who have no food? And how can we help people overcome their various addictions?

I am personally into my 27th year of recovery from alcohol. It has been a struggle. I began the time of my sobriety by drinking lots of Coca Cola, more than my usual lifetime habit, to replace beer. I’ve mixed in juice, particularly cranberry juice, since that has a cleansing effect on the body. I’ve tried to eat more vegetables, but sometimes, energy-wise, only a hamburger will do. I’m an asthmatic, and that takes away energy, so I go to bed earlier and have taken allergy medications. I had pneumonia almost six years ago, and I don’t want it again.

But back to the questions at hand. The mentally ill obviously need all the help they can get. A man standing in front of me in the food line who mostly yells nonsensical things, received this comment from someone behind me: “He needs to take his medications.” Drugs may provide some of the answer, but therapy, individual and group, is also called for, I would think.

How do we feed the poor adequately? San Francisco probably has more soup kitchens than anywhere in the world to feed those in need. It’s interesting how I’ve heard people in the food line compare Glide to, say, St. Anthony, and what sort of food each serves. It seems that variety of food is one of the most important issues in providing meals for the poor.

Helping people who have somehow become disconnected from reality is key. It is essential to help those who have become estranged, perhaps, due to the harsh nature of society. Glide currently provides a number of programs, including mental health services.

I’m trying to keep going by substituting in the S.F. School District, and I’m striving to get a better deal for myself, and even teach college English again. The Glide soup kitchen provides a valuable contribution to my survival until that happens.

 

Tough Times and Long Lines

by Buford Buntin

The food line at Glide Memorial was around the block almost all the way up to O’Farrell, as we waited out in the coldest weather I’ve experienced from over three decades of experience of living in San Francisco.

It isn’t quite shivering weather, yet a bit uncomfortable as I wait in the “short” line first with the other seniors, gobble my grits and diced ham, slurp down some coffee, then go back out in the cool, cool weather and line up for seconds.

I get a little upset because a man jumps in front of me in line, until I remember he asked to be there again following going in and leaving a couple of bags with his belongings in the lobby. I think my anxiety about this was fueled by a guy who I think did jump in line illegally a couple of people ahead of me.

“Give him a bag lunch!” I grumbled, then decided it was not worth a confrontation. Maybe he really was in line before.

Breakfast is always good at Glide, as are all the free meals. I usually go twice so I won’t be hungry in between meals. This afternoon is probably chili-cheese hotdogs, which they do well.

Tomorrow, unless people get paid SSI checks, and maybe regular Social Security, records could be set, as baked chicken, which Gilde does best of any meal, will have the line wrapped around the corner to O’Farrell Street for sure.

The tough times continue.

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