As we drive through our county, we see fields of luscious vegetables, farmers markets teeming with people, grocery stores full of every conceivable item and restaurants at every corner.
Yet many of our neighbors are hungry. And ironically, many of the hungry are malnourished, overweight and obese from low-cost, non-nutritious foods. More than 40,000 people each year access services from the Food Bank Coalition of San Luis Obispo County, and the need is growing.
Is it just a matter of money and the economy that people are going hungry and not getting healthy, quality food?
We have been distributing food through our 200 nonprofit partners for years, and the problem is growing worse. The Cal Fresh (formerly Food Stamps) program is accessible to thousands in our county, but less than half of those eligible take advantage of it because of unreasonable regulations that do not exist in most states. Our farmers and food retailers regularly help us with food and other resources, but we don’t have enough. We are supported significantly by the public, but we can’t seem to overcome the problem — even in a rich county like ours.
We need to figure out the local causes of the problems of hunger and malnutrition. Our community has shown its ability to work together and come up with solutions to overcome other problems, and we can do so here.
The Food Bank recently received a Hunger-Free Communities planning grant from the Department of Agriculture. We are extremely fortunate to have been selected from among 140 applications to be one of only 10 communities in the nation to receive a planning grant.
What will we do to develop a plan to eliminate hunger and malnutrition in San Luis Obispo County?
First, we will work with our partners at Cal Poly STRIDE to get some solid local information on who is hungry in our county and why. We will also survey available resources to see where and to whom affordable, healthy food is available, and where it is not.
Second, we will draw on our local partners in agriculture, nutrition, food policy, environmental issues, education, mental health, social services and local government to form a coalition to ensure that we have sustainable food systems in this county. The local economy relies on our agriculture industry and food producers, and we need to support them and figure out ways that we can all work together to have affordable, healthy food for local families.
Third, the coalition will develop a Hunger-Free Community Action Plan. This plan will be the blueprint for program fixes and systemic solutions to end hunger, improve nutrition among the less fortunate in our community and strengthen the local farm community economically. With a plan in hand, we can return to USDA for an “implementation” grant, and implement solutions that we are confident will work.
How can you get involved? We will be conducting surveys, holding community meetings and working with many organizations in the coming months to get input from everyone who is interested. You can also buy from our local growers and keep on donating to the Food Bank for immediate needs while we develop the long-term solutions.
We would love to hear from you. For more information, please contact our project director, Joel Diringer (firstname.lastname@example.org) or Food Bank executive director, Carl Hansen (email@example.com).
Carl Hansen is executive director of the Food Bank Coalition of San Luis Obispo County. Joel Diringer is longtime county health advocate and project director for the Hunger-Free Community project.