Searching for Food in the Land of Plenty

Sadyrae Sommerville sits in the kitchen of her small home, which she shares with her daughter and grandson. The family struggles to make ends meet and Sommerville relies on delivered meals from the senior center in Colusa, for lunch and dinner.
Sadyrae Sommerville sits in the kitchen of her small home, which she shares with her daughter and grandson. The family struggles to make ends meet and Sommerville relies on delivered meals from the senior center in Colusa, for lunch and dinner.
Dianne de Guzman/hungerincal.uscannenberg.org

Listen to story

Download this story 3.0MB

The number of Californians fighting to ward off hunger, already at a crisis level, is worsening in the face of the lingering recession and high unemployment. Now, the problem may grow as the state faces a new round of budget cuts.

Over a six-month period, California Watch and the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at USC interviewed scores of county, state and food bank officials and dozens of Californians who face food shortages. The reporting found that record numbers are overwhelming food banks and county social service offices in every corner of the state and that the crisis is accelerating.

Food banks doled out 300 million pounds of meals and surplus commodities last year — the equivalent of eight pounds for every Californian. It represents at least a 30 percent rise from 2008, according to the California Association of Food Banks.

In Los Angeles, 983,000 individuals sought food assistance from soup kitchens, shelters and food pantries in 2009 – the highest number ever, and a 46 percent increase since 2005. In some wealthier counties, such as Monterey, the numbers nearly doubled, an indication of the recession’s impact on formerly middle-income Californians.

Fresno’s Community Food Bank gave out 6 million pounds of food in 2008, 14 million pounds last year and expects to distribute 30 million pounds in 2010. And across the state, county officials report lines of people going “out the door” or “around the block” to apply for food stamps and other assistance.

Yet, in the midst of these troubles, mountains of nutritious food are being thrown away. In 2008, more than six million tons of food were plowed under on California farms or dumped by grocers and restaurants statewide, according to the California Waste Management Board. Much of the food was still edible.

It is impossible to say precisely how many Californians have difficulty providing enough food for their families. The picture of hunger in California in 2010 is markedly different than it was four decades ago, when “Hunger in America,” CBS News’s landmark documentary, showed horrific scenes of emaciated, severely malnourished Americans.

Today, with food safety net programs, rooted in the 1960s War on Poverty, eliminating the worst impacts of hunger, experts measure “food insecurity”: the lack of access to sufficient food on a regular basis. Put more simply, a “food insecure” family is one that struggles to put food on the table.

According to UCLA’s landmark California Health Interview Survey, more than 2.8 million households struggle to feed their families. The total population of these households is 11.3 million, representing more than one in every four people in the state. Even more alarming, those figures, the latest available, are based on surveys taken in 2007 — before the recession hit — so “the numbers are low,” said Gail Harrison, professor at UCLA’s School of Public Health.

The California numbers mirror a rise in hunger across the country. In a U.S. Department of Agriculture survey published late last year, 17.1 million U.S. households, or one in seven nationwide, reported having problems affording sufficient food – the highest number the agency has recorded. A report by Chicago-based Feeding America indicates that one in eight Americans sought food assistance at food banks last year — an increase of 46 percent since 2006.

“The current state of hunger in the U.S. is at epic proportions,” said Dr. H. Eric Schockman, chairman of the National Anti-Hunger Organizations, a coalition of religious and civic groups in Washington, D.C. “The data continues to escalate, both nationally and in California.”

Now, the combination of recession and California’s budget crisis is threatening to tear at fragile local safety nets, which have long been dependent on state and federal monies. As hunger grows, funding for food programs is under increasing threat. The California Legislature is conducting a series of hearings on across-the-board cuts to anti-poverty and food assistance programs.

“Every state including California is struggling with the increased caseloads we see in all of our safety net programs,” said John A. Wagner, director of the California Department of Social Services. “In this time, many difficult decisions are being made by the governor and the legislature because of the fiscal crisis.”

The California Health and Human Services Agency, which includes the Department of Social Services, is proposing a 16 percent cut across the board for fiscal year 2010-11. An agency budget overview forecasts “major spending reductions,” which could become “devastating cuts” that could eliminate “vitally important programs.”

One such program is CalWORKS, the state’s welfare-to-work program, which provides cash assistance, child care and job training for poor families.

“We’re talking about a program that serves a million children,” said Frank Mecca, executive director of the County Welfare Directors Association, during a packed hearing in Sacramento on February 10.

Mecca was part of a long line of county officials, welfare directors and poor Californians who took turns decrying the latest proposals from the state Department of Social Services, which come in the wake of a 30-40 percent rise in Californians seeking food assistance in the last year.

Food Deployment in Santa Barbara from Alaena Hostetter on Vimeo.

“It just doesn’t make any sense,” said Cathi Grams, director of employment and social services for rural Butte County. “The alarming part is that at the time when there’s the greatest need, the social service programs are targeted for reduction year after year.”

Aid to California’s poor has become an issue in the state’s Republican gubernatorial primary, with candidate Meg Whitman calling California “the welfare state.” But Mecca credits CalWORKS with bringing in $3.9 billion in annual federal revenues and creating 137,000 public and private sector jobs.

Reductions in cash assistance for CalWORKS and other programs, county officials say, force some families onto the street, while others, faced with fixed costs for rent and utilities, must cut back on food.

Consider the problems already confronting millions of Californians:
In South Los Angeles, local anti-hunger advocates report a sharp spike in demand for free meals. “We have never witnessed such demand for food and assistance,” said Mortimer Jones, executive director of the Los Angeles Salvation Army. “Many of the people who once donated to us are now knocking on our door for help.”

Mendota residents line up at 5 a.m. to wait to receive food from the biweekly Fresno Community Food Bank food distribution. Photo by Irma Widjojo

In the Central Valley farming town of Mendota, where unemployment is 41.5 percent, 400 people lined up before dawn for food assistance on a recent morning, several hours before food center doors opened.

Food aid has doubled in some rural parts of the state. “We used to see 3500 people a month needing food assistance,” said Julianna Roberts, food and nutrition manager of the Community Action Agency of Butte County Inc., which serves six counties in northern California. “Now it’s about 7000.”

In Stockton, where 10 percent of the homes are in foreclosure, demand for free food has risen sharply since the recession began. “We are seeing 1,500 to 1,800 clients a week,” said Tim Viall, executive director of the Emergency Food Bank of Stockton. “Of all those clients about 90 percent claim loss of jobs.”

In rural California, food agencies are increasingly reporting running out of USDA commodity foods at weekly giveaways — sending away hungry people at the end of the line, empty-handed. At senior hot-meal lunch programs, some elderly hoard their portions, saving the rest for dinner.

“This is not a recession — it’s a depression,” said Val Martinez, executive director of Redwood Community Action Agency of Humboldt County. “There’s a level of desperation out there I haven’t seen before. And I’ve been doing this for 30 years.”

The rising level of need has put increasing pressure on food pantries, soup kitchens, and community food giveaways.

“It seems like every month there’s more of us waiting for food,” said Joan Yeboah, a former electromechanical drafter on disability for a bad back, who recently learned she has cancer. She stood next to her car outside a Chico community center, now used as a staging area to give away USDA commodity foods, opening her trunk to display the day’s haul: two packs of walnuts, a box of Rice Krispies, three cans of fruit, two boxes of milk, a jar of peanut butter, some cheese, and a can of beef stew.

“My daughter has a master’s degree in teaching and can’t get a job,” she said, blaming the state cuts in education for her family’s predicament. “Most of my income goes to housing, which leaves me $72 a month to live on. We’ve gone through our savings; I’ve gone through my 401k. I don’t know how I’m going to pay for my cancer treatment. It’s sort of fruitless. We don’t have a strategy. I have no idea what we’re going to do.

“We pray a lot.”

The Gleaners from Hunger In California on Vimeo.

In rural Colusa County, near Sacramento, retired truck driver Sadyrae Sommerville relies on county meal deliveries for the homebound, because buying food has become increasingly difficult. “After I make the house payments, the PG&E bill, the money goes quickly,” said Somerville. On weekends, when there are no meal deliveries, her only meal is often some bread and cheese, or a bowl of cereal. “That’s just what I have to do.”

For people like Somerville and Yeboah the government safety net is crucial — but not something they will necessarily be able to rely on as much in coming years.

“The safety net funding from states is caught in the following contradiction — demand goes up in recessions, at precisely the time when revenues fall,” said Steven Levy, director and senior economist of the Center for Continuing Study of the California Economy in Palo Alto. “At the state level, every dollar competes against other social priorities, like education and health care, for poor families.”

The proposed cuts to CalWORKS are at the center of a battle between the state and anti-poverty advocates. Under one scenario, in which federal grants lessen the blow of state cuts, California would slash cash assistance by 16 percent, to a maximum of $585 per month, per family. Without federal help, the state has proposed eliminating CalWORKs.

Under either scenario, the California Food Assistance Program, which provides vital food aid to legal immigrants not eligible for food stamps, would be eliminated entirely. State legislators are not expected to vote on the proposed cuts to the 2010-11 budget before this summer.

George Manalo-LeClair, director of legislation and policy for the California Food Policy Advocates, said CalWORKS was among a range of crucial antipoverty programs now targeted for cuts or elimination.

“The progress we were making, all that is undermined as we see greater food insecurity in response to these program cuts,” said Manalo-LeClair. He pointed to other studies showing a ripple effect from cuts to basic assistance, including increased learning disabilities, acute health problems and emergency-room visits for young children. “You’re going to start seeing the impact over time,” he said.

County officials, who administer many of the public food assistance programs, say they are struggling to keep their programs running amid the daunting circumstances.

“Counties are finding themselves between a rock and a hard place,” said Paul McIntosh, executive director of the California State Association of Counties. “In general, counties have reduced staff to make up those losses. There are some counties, primarily in urban [areas], who haven’t been able to make those reductions and have had to revert to general fund money to keep those programs going.”

Yet, at the same time, counties are “seeing a huge increase in demand for those services – people literally lining up around the block,” he said.

“This is probably one of the worst times that we’ve seen in this area,” said Julianna Roberts of the Community Action Agency of Butte County Inc., which oversees food programs, including a hot meal delivery service to homebound seniors. “We’re having to look at trying to keep the minimum service level. Budget-wise, we’re struggling to do that.”

In nearby Colusa County, nutrition and food delivery programs for seniors are losing funding, according to Beth Robey, director of the county’s Department of Health and Human Services. She said the programs cost at least double the $70,000 the county receives from state and federal funding, and county surplus funds that have previously been used to make up for the shortfall are quickly running dry.

Robey said that a court case is in place to keep the governor’s budget from being approved — this year’s budget proposes several cuts to Robey’s program, which could eliminate funding for their senior nutrition program.

“If [winning the case] doesn’t happen, it’ll trigger more catastrophic cuts,” said Robey. “It’s balancing the budgets on the backs of the poor.”

California is not alone in scrambling to meet rising numbers of needy people.

“The nation’s social safety net has giant holes in it,” warns Edward Cooney, executive director of the Congressional Hunger Center, an organization focused on finding solutions to hunger problems in the United States and abroad. “In a country that has our resources and help, it’s appalling.”

Joel Berg, who served in various positions at the USDA during the Clinton administration, says the core problem lies not in the amount of food or the number of programs, but in poverty.

“Unfortunately, that is the reality of America today,” Berg said. “[People] are hungry because they just don’t have enough money to buy food. There is enough food, they just can’t afford it.”

While the portrait of a hurting and hungry state is troubling, there is hope. Some promising new approaches are being tried and tested to spur participation in the food stamp program, glean more food and get it to people in need, and bolster incentives to participate in new programs.

San Francisco officials are looking to increase the number of those using their food stamp program by allowing residents to apply for benefits online, and providing a customer-focused call center, which allows participants to avoid the long lines that plague many social service offices.

Communities such as South Los Angeles considered “food deserts” because of the scarcity of available healthy foods — are setting up weekly farmers markets to encourage residents to eat healthier foods. Classes are being offered to teach people how to plant and grow fruits and vegetables.

Untitled from Hunger In California on Vimeo.

Sen. Jenny Oropeza, D-Long Beach, is organizing a food donation database for restaurants, to help pair dining establishments with food banks.

But with the lingering recession, high unemployment and the state’s budget crisis, it will be daunting for officials to fulfill President Barack Obama’s campaign pledge, reaffirmed this year by U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, to end child hunger by 2015.

“I’ve never been in this situation before,” said Donna Richins, 66, sitting at a community center in rural Gridley, north of Sacramento, where hot lunches are served to needy elderly. Not long ago, Richins recalled, she could buy new clothes and cosmetics, pay her rent and utilities on time, and visit the doctor or dentist if need be. Now, all of that is a struggle.

In January, she was forced to go without her heart medicine for two weeks when she ran out of money. “It’s embarrassing,” she said. “I don’t want to tell my kids the shape I’m in.” At least, she said with a smile, “God has blessed me that I’m not homeless.”

She looked down at the black plastic tray containing what was left of her lunch: a modest slice of chicken and a few of forkfuls of spinach.

“I only eat half my lunch,” she said. “And for dinner, I have the other half.”


This story is part of a collaboration between KPCC.org and Hunger in the Golden State, a multimedia project from the USC Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism and California Watch, an initiative of the Center for Investigative Reporting. The audio for this series was produced in conjunction with The California Report.