Carl Hansen is on the front lines of hunger on the Central Coast.
As the executive director of the Food Bank Coalition of San Luis Obispo County, he knows that a population roughly the size of San Luis Obispo — about 40,000 county residents — is hungry today. Of these, almost 40 percent are children. And the numbers continue to grow.
As the economy continues in the doldrums, the fastest growing population seeking help making ends meet is the county’s strained middle class.
“A lot of people who don’t look like they’re poor are now newly unable to meet their needs,” Hansen said. “We have a lot more families coming in seeking food — about a 25 percent increase in the last year.
“The face of the homeless and hungry has changed over the last 10 years,” said Terrie Humphrey, whose job as a family advocate for the Paso Robles Unified School District is to help identify and aid students from families in need.
Although the district’s Family Resource Center offers help with housing, counseling and other issues to help keep students healthy and capable of learning, about 55 percent of the referrals coming into the center now deal with a basic need for food, Humphrey said.
“Last year, I noticed some increase in the number of families in need,” family advocate Elena Chavez said. “This year, it’s worse. Sometimes, it seems overwhelming.”
“We used to serve mostly Spanish-speaking families,” Humphrey said. “Now, we have a lot of families that have lost jobs and can’t pay their mortgage. They can’t afford a lot of necessities, like food and clothing. The secondary effects can be an increase in domestic violence because of the increase in stress.”
With the stakes so high, the Food Bank and the school district are partnering in a program called Healthy Food for Local Families.
“We’ve been looking for the right way to reach more low-income families,” said Cathy Enns of the Food Bank, “and we feel strongly that we’ve found it.”
The Food Bank is applying for a $300,000, three-year grant through the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
“The USDA is concerned about feeding local families,” Enns said, “distributing more healthy food and supporting local agriculture.”
According to Hansen, beginning in January, the Food Bank will begin shipping nonperishables and locally grown produce to the Resource Center’s office on Chestnut Street in Paso Robles. Volunteers will bag the food and set out the produce in a farmer’s market array for low-income families.
“We believe everyone has the right to nutritious food, regardless of the reason they can’t always obtain it for themselves,” Hansen said.
The Food Bank will learn next year if it gets the grant, Hansen said. If it does not receive the grant, the program will not be able to expand to more districts.
Humphrey has been an advocate for seven years and has worked with the school district for the last 10 years. The change she’s witnessing is daunting.
“What’s been really difficult is working with people who have been self-sufficient, and all of a sudden they’re on the street.
“The day is never long enough to provide help for all the people who need it.”