SLO Food Bank survey reveals faces of hunger

If there is one epitomizing image of hunger in San Luis Obispo County that tells the story of the average resident in need of food, it might be a 48-year-old Hispanic woman, with a full-time job but no medical or other benefits, and no children, earning $1,200 a month.

That is the profile of an average participant in a survey that aimed to find out who in the county is hungry and why. The work was conducted through a partnership between Cal Poly students and faculty and the Food Bank Coalition of San Luis Obispo County.

By interviewing more than 800 residents from Shandon to Nipomo, they were able to compile a more comprehensive picture of residents in need and their access to food.The results, released Friday, will be used to determine how to meet those needs, said Carl Hansen, executive director of the Food Bank Coalition.

“Hunger is not just a big-city problem,” said Rep. Lois Capps, who attended a presentation on the study at Cal Poly on Friday. Results from the survey will be used to get resources to those who need them and allow organizations that provide services to be more effective, the Santa Barbara Democrat said.

Of the 800 people surveyed, 47 percent were Hispanic and 42 percent were white. A little more than 60 percent had high school diplomas, and 60 percent were living at or below the federal poverty level, defined as a family of four with a yearly household income of $22,350.

Overall, the study found Hispanic households worked more often, had fewer job benefits and earned more money compared to white households but, because of larger household sizes, made half as much money per capita. More than 84 percent of Hispanic residents surveyed were employed, compared to 37 percent of white residents.

The median monthly income of those surveyed was $1,200; 7 percent reported having no income. The median monthly income in San Luis Obispo County is $4,637, and statewide it is $4,910.

A majority of those surveyed said they have had to choose between buying food and paying their rent, purchasing medicine or covering utility costs.

Surveyors also asked residents about their use of programs including the Food Bank, food stamps and the state’s supplemental nutrition program for women and children (known as WIC).

According to the study, “considering the amount of need within this population, use of nutrition assistance programs was relatively low.”

Less than 60 percent reported using food stamps or WIC, while 82 percent have used or get food from the Food Bank Coalition. Many of those surveyed said they didn’t believe they would qualify for programs — even though some likely would — or didn’t know the criteria for qualifying.

About 100 students and volunteers completed face-to-face interviews last year with residents throughout the county at food distribution centers, churches, work sites and homeless shelters, among other places.

The results surprised some of the students.

“I didn’t know there was so much need,” said Rylee Horner, a senior studying nutrition. Horner grew up in Turlock, near Modesto, and regularly volunteered at the food bank there during high school.

But as a Cal Poly student, she’d never traveled northeast to Shandon or south to Nipomo, nor had she asked so many personal questions to someone in need.

“The experience was eye-opening,” she said.

Reach Cynthia Lambert at 781-7929. Stay updated by following @SouthCountyBeat on Twitter.