Feeding America study finds San Luis Obispo County is getting hungrier

Members of the Rock Harbor Christian Fellowship of Morro Bay serve food at the Maxine Lewis Shelter. from the left:(hands of Jim Leksan), Thomas Riley, Matt Corning,  Susan Craig, Eileen Dennis.
Members of the Rock Harbor Christian Fellowship of Morro Bay serve food at the Maxine Lewis Shelter. from the left:(hands of Jim Leksan), Thomas Riley, Matt Corning, Susan Craig, Eileen Dennis. The Tribune

As local unemployment rates hover at their highest levels in 27 years, more San Luis Obispo County families are going hungry, forcing many to turn to local nonprofit organizations for help.

The Food Bank Coalition, which distributes food to families at 28 sites throughout the county, notes a 40 percent increase in the number of families it serves year over year. At the Maxine Lewis Memorial Shelter for the homeless in San Luis Obispo, lines for breakfast, lunch and dinner have been growing, which has subsequently placed a squeeze on Prado Day Center breakfast offerings because people who are turned away from the Maxine Lewis shelter then go to Prado.

In Paso Robles, school staff who once helped families with housing and utilities are now a crucial resource in making sure they have enough food on the table.

More Americans than ever are suffering from a lack of food, according to a study recently released by Feeding America, the nation’s largest domestic hunger-relief organization.

According to the study, more than 37 million people — one in eight Americans — including 14 million children and nearly 3 million seniors, receive emergency food each year through the nation’s network of food banks and the agencies they serve. The findings represent a 46 percent increase since the organization’s last survey in 2006.

“The new figures from Feeding America should be of great concern to all of us,” said Carl Hansen, executive director of the Food Bank Coalition of San Luis Obispo County, which is part of the network of food banks operating under the umbrella of Feeding America. “They not only signal that a great many citizens are suffering immediate need, they also suggest threats to our health care system, to our schools, to industry — indeed to our future — as so many struggle with hunger and malnourishment.”

Joblessness drives need

The situation is called “food insecurity,” which is when a person doesn’t always know where the next meal will come from.

As national unemployment hovers around 9 percent, families are making the toughest of choices. For instance, the Feeding America study found that 46 percent of client households report choosing between food and utilities; 39 percent choose between food and the mortgage or rent; and 34 percent can’t cover both food and medical costs.

According to the state Employment Development Department, San Luis Obispo County’s non-seasonally adjusted unemployment rate as of January was 10.6 percent. Historically, because of the number of relatively stable government jobs, the county has ranked as one of the lowest counties in California for unemployment, averaging around 4.5 percent.

Jobless numbers are putting unprecedented strain on the Food Bank and other nutrition programs. Hansen said his group now helps about 40,000 people through its direct program, an increase of about 20 percent over the last couple of years. That doesn’t take into account the food that flows from the Food Bank through 200 nonprofit agency partners, who have also seen a big increase in year-over-year demand, he adds.

At the Maxine Lewis shelter — where the Food Bank conducted surveys for the Feeding America study — the meal lines have been growing tremendously in the last few years, said Dee Torres, homeless services director at Community Action Partnership of San Luis Obispo Inc.

The shelter is experiencing a 36 percent year-over-year increase in those seeking a nightly hot meal. The Prado Day Center’s lunch program is also being taxed by serving 18 percent more meals this year than last. Its breakfast program is teetering on not being able to meet demand and is in “desperate need,” center manager Shawn Ison said.

Food for local families

Hansen and his staff at the Food Bank spotted local trends in hunger in 2008 and 2009.

One underserved demographic group that the Food Bank identified months ago, which was subsequently corroborated by the Feeding America study, is low-income Hispanic families.This led to a new, school-based program, Healthy Food for Local Families, in Paso Robles, Atascadero and Oceano.

Hansen said that Healthy Food for Local Families uses school district personnel and volunteers to set up a “farmers market” style food distribution — emphasizing fresh produce and other nutrition-driven foodstuffs — two weeks each month in the three communities. When parents are working and can’t come to collect food, volunteers organize drop-offs.

Elena Chavez has been a family advocate for the Paso Robles Unified School District for the past 11 years. As such, she works with students and families in need. In years past, she helped with housing, utility and gasoline issues. This year it’s all about getting enough food on the table.

Recently, she made a home visit on a referral and found a family that was sitting down to a dinner of thin soup (a carrot, a zucchini and a couple of potatoes) and three chicken legs. Needless to say, the children got the drumsticks, and the parents were left with the remains of the soup.

Chavez immediately got the family signed up for Healthy Food for Local Families, and the mother has visited the farmers market-style distribution twice to supplement the family’s diet.

“We’re now looking for funding to expand Healthy Food for Local Families to new areas,” Hansen said.