While hunger is a worldwide problem, it has gone largely unmitigated in our own backyard.
The United States Department of Agriculture report on food stamp participation in 2007 revealed approximately 4,215,000 people are eligible for food stamps in California, but only about 48 percent actually receive benefits. California has continually ranked on the low end of food stamp participation, according to the report.
“Underutilization is a problem because we’re leaving valuable resources on the table,” said California Food Policy Advocates (CFPA) director of legislation George Manalo-LeClair. “This means that there is a lot of needless suffering that we could potentially eliminate.”
A new CFPA report Lost Dollars, Empty Plates specifically addressed the underutilization of federal benefits such as those provided by the State Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP). The report suggests that part of the reason for underutilization is the red tape associated with getting help.
“There are a lot more administrative barriers associated with receiving food stamps in California than in other states,” LeClair said. “People have to make trips to the office during normal weekday business hours and so may have to miss work to come in which can jeopardize their employment.”
The CFPA report suggests several solutions to increase food stamp participation, including removing the asset test and the fingerprinting requirement and providing phone and web rather than in-person interviews to avoid having to miss work.
Low participation in SNAP means not only an increase in hunger but also a decrease in economic activity. The report estimates that Yolo County is missing out on as much as $24,024,718 in federal benefits, which is equivalent to an estimated $44,205,482 potential increase in economic activity.
“Food stamps provide ‘bagable’ nutrition benefits for as much as $100 worth of food per person per month,” LeClair said. “Food stamps also have a ripple effect in benefiting agriculture and grocery stores – resources which are valuable in kickstarting a stagnant economy.”
According to the CFPA report, there are 27,783 people eligible for food stamps in Yolo County, but only about 9,527 or 34 percent are actually getting the help they need.
“Due to the economic conditions a lot of people who never dreamed of having to rely on food stamps are now finding themselves standing in line,” said executive director of the Yolo County Food Bank Jose Martinez.
Martinez believes that food insecurity can have mental as well as physical repercussions.
“Have you ever been hungry? It can be very mentally difficult to face that situation,” Martinez said. “Studies have shown that children who go hungry often do worse in school because they’re busy thinking about when their next meal might be.”
The Yolo County Food Bank distributes food directly to individuals and serves 70 other non-profit organizations in the county. Martinez estimated that they reach about 20,000 people every month, but believes there is a lot more to be done.
“We have a program called Friday’s Table during which we distribute food directly to individuals. We used to get about 120 people every Friday but now we get about 300,” Martinez said. “That’s almost a 150 percent increase in demand. I’m certain we’re not reaching everyone.”
Other organizations such as Davis Community Meals and the Short Term Emergency Aid Committee (STEAC) have also seen an increase in demand.
“We’ve been seeing a lot of new faces,” said executive director of Davis Community Meals Bill Pride. “I know for a fact that usage went up at least 25 percent between last year and the year before.”
Davis Community Meals provides meals three times per week at St. Martin’s Church.
“To me, it’s a mission to make sure everyone in the community is healthy and able to provide for themselves,” Pride said.
STEAC has been providing emergency food, clothing and other services to people in Yolo County since 1967.
“There’s nothing typical about any of the people we work with,” said executive director Susan Simon, who has been with STEAC for six years. “We get everyone from single homeless individuals to a family of 10.”
STEAC provides food packages for families and the homeless with three meals a day per person for as many as five days per month.
“The bottom line is you have to eat to stay alive,” Simon said. “If we ever ran out of money and had to choose only one program to keep, it would be the Food Closet because that’s the most important thing we do.”
JANE TEIXEIRA can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.