Hunger in SLO County is examined in report

San Luis Obispo County’s most powerful political body, the Board of Supervisors, listened to a presentation Tuesday on hunger and what to do about it, but took no action beyond making an informal commitment to continue to fight the problem.

Supervisors praised the research, and Supervisor Bruce Gibson said “that there is hunger in a county and a state and a nation this affluent is stunning.”

However, during the public discussion, not everyone focused on the 40,000 hungry people the report said live in the county.

Mike Brown, leader of an influential county property rights group, criticized the report for language that he said denigrated the nation’s food growth and distribution system, which he called “the greatest boon … in the entire history of civilization.”

Brown, who is with the Coalition of Labor, Agriculture, and Business (COLAB), took issue with the wording in “Paradox of Plenty: A community roadmap for overcoming hunger” in the county.

The report is the product of more than a year of cooperative research involving countless community groups, ranging from the Farm Bureau to the Food Bank to Cal Poly students. It is rich in detail about the causes of hunger, number and nature of those who go hungry, and suggestions for remedying the situation.

Brown criticized the language in general, but zeroed in on a sentence on page 21 of a 46-page document: “The current industrial food system is characterized by high-energy usage and waste, consumers are more distanced than ever from their food, and farmers throughout the nation are often among the food insecure population.”

He disagreed with that conclusion, heaping praise on the food distribution system.

Brown, who said the report contained useful information, said economic recovery would take care of the hunger problem.

“It’s the strength of the economy, and the job market, that is going to lift all boats.”

Another speaker, a young volunteer with Loaves and Fishes, an agency that helps the hungry, had a different take.

Focusing on the aspect of the “Paradox of Plenty” report that said many people who are eligible for food aid don’t seek it, Jeff Grandinetti said they hold back from getting help because they are embarrassed and there is a stigma attached to using, for example, food stamps.

Grandinetti said he recalled working at a grocery store in the North County whose manager called food stamp users “white trash,” even though the great majority of them were veterans or families of veterans.

Eric Greening, another speaker, called that attitude “rampant” and asked “have we learned nothing since Dickens,” alluding to the 19th century English writer and reformer Charles Dickens, who wrote of orphanages and poorhouses.

The discussion going into general views of the poor went beyond the scope of “Paradox of Plenty,” but provided backdrop and context by illuminating community attitudes.

Some conclusions in “Paradox of Plenty”:

• Children make up 19 percent of the county’s population but constitute 40 percent of the Food Bank’s users.

• The number of county schoolchildren enrolled in the free and reduced meal program is up to 43 percent or 14,700 youngsters. Most of them do not get this food during the summer, when school is out.

• Senior citizens and Latinos are also disproportionately affected.

• There are structural impediments for getting out of the quagmire. For example, SLO County is driven by agriculture, which pays low wages. Add to that the lack of housing that even people making an average wage can afford to buy, and you have a situation in which many families must choose “between buying food and paying their rent or mortgage and medical expenses.”

• The average age of principal farm operators in the county is 59, and there is a looming threat of their farms being taken out of production. “A younger generation of farmers must be cultivated.”

• Not everyone suffering from hunger is using programs available to them. For example, nearly 33,000 county residents are eligible for Cal Fresh (formerly known as food stamps) but fewer than 10,000 are using them.