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More Bay Area adults and children
go hungry

By Anna Molin, Bay City News Service

February 23, 2006

More and more Bay Area residents go hungry as stagnating wages and exorbitant living costs force them to choose between paying rent or buying food, according to a number of local studies in a nationwide report.

The Watsonville-based Second Harvest Food Bank of Santa Cruz and San Benito counties reported an 18 percent increase in people who face hunger, meaning they are completely without a source of food, as well as a 17 percent increase in people who experience food insecurity, meaning they don't know where they will find their next meal.

In four years, the number of people served by the Food Bank for Monterey County jumped by 52 percent from 36,000 in 2001 to 55,000 in 2005, Executive Director Leslie Sunny said today.

The nationwide study, called Hunger in America 2006, was released Wednesday and conducted by the Chicago-based America's Second Harvest and the Princeton-based Mathematica Policy Research Group. It found that more than 25 million Americans, including nearly 9 million children and 3 million seniors, receive emergency food assistance each year from the network's various food banks, representing an 8 percent increase since 2001.

"I think the big thing, and we already knew this, was the increase in number of people who are food insecure and hungry on the Central Coast,''

Lee Mercer, education and outreach director for the Second Harvest Food Bank of Santa Cruz and San Benito counties, said today.

Another striking finding is the number of children who suffer from hunger or food insecurities.

Out of the 323 food bank clients interviewed face-to-face in Monterey County, 92 percent of households with children reported having one or more experiences of suffering from lack of food to feed their families and another 34 percent had gone hungry without any food.

According to figures collected by the Alameda County Community Food Bank, 35 percent of emergency food recipients are children under the age of 18. With about 40,000 residents relying on food assistance for their next meal, some 16,000 are children and another 6,144 are seniors above 50.

In Santa Cruz and San Benito counties, that number is slightly higher with 39 percent children receiving food assistance and 11 percent seniors and disabled on a fixed income relying on food aid.

"It's a sad fact that more children and seniors in our community are missing meals,'' Suzan Bateson, executive director of the Alameda County Community Food Bank, said in a statement.

"Additionally, earning a steady paycheck isn't enough to keep many families out of food lines.''

Although some needy clients suffer from long-term unemployment, including 41 percent of Alameda County recipients who've been unemployed for more than two years, many families report having at least one person working, including 38 percent in Alameda County. Once again the number is slightly higher in Santa Cruz and San Benito counties, with 41 percent of family households having at least one employed adult.

"It certainly dispels stereotypes about who needs food, like the conventional stereotype being homeless people," Mercer said.

"It is actually a lot of working families."

Food bank representatives cite the Bay Area's high cost of living combined with comparatively modest or low wages as the prime reasons for the increasing numbers of hungry locals.

"The fact that we have so many people who live below the federal poverty level when rentals and cost of living is so high and wages so low is very striking,'' Sunny said.

Among the Food Bank of Monterey County's clients, 79 percent reported living below the 2006 federal poverty level, which ranges from $9,800 for a single-person household to $20,000 for a family of four.

The Alameda County Community Food Bank found that 61 percent of client households lived below the federal poverty line with a median monthly income of $800. By comparison, the average monthly income for all of the county's households is $5,144, according to the food bank's local survey.

The nationwide survey along with the local reports noted that many of their clients report having to pick between paying for utilities, including electricity, and food.

According to the nationwide survey, 35 percent had to make the choice between rent or a mortgage and food, while 32 percent said they had to decide whether to pay for medical bills or food.

Despite the gloomy outlook, the food bank representatives offered some ideas on how to alleviate hunger in their communities.

The Alameda County Community Food Bank suggested addressing the root causes of hunger, supporting higher wages, improving work and education and building affordable housing.

Mercer with the Watsonville-based food bank noted that efforts on the national level are under way to address the federal food program's complicated red-tape formula of income and assets that sometimes leaves needy people without assistance.

Out of the 295 clients interviewed in Santa Cruz and San Benito counties, 13 percent received food stamps, though 77 percent qualified under the national guidelines, the study found.

Alameda County showed similar numbers with 21 percent of clients receiving food stamp benefits, though about 70 percent have incomes that make them eligible.

Meanwhile, Mercer urged the community to boost up food and monetary donations to help the food banks grow stronger and more efficient.

The nationwide survey based its results on face-to-face interviews with 52,000 clients seeking emergency food assistance and more than 30,000 agency surveys across the country.

Copyright © 2006 by Bay City News, Inc. -- Republication, Rebroadcast or any other Reuse without the express written consent of Bay City News, Inc. is prohibited.




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