San Mateo County needs to prove 63 million more meals annually to cover its hunger need which is 73 percent unmet.
While staggering, the figure is not an impossibility to fix, said Santa Clara University Professor Drew Starbird who helped create the Hunger Index for San Mateo County.
"I don’t think we can say it’s not solvable,” Starbird said yesterday at the Hunger Issues Forum held at Genentech in South San Francisco at which advocates learned specifics about just who needs food on the local level and how better to push for legislative change and precious dollars.
Starbird chalked up some of the challenges to solving the hunger problem are the underutilization of programs, the costs of food distribution and access and the ability of advocates to bend with an often-shifting problem.
"The people who need assistance change all the time and we’re not always changing with it,” Starbird said.
Hunger and food insecurity is no longer confined to children with swollen bellies or unemployed adults. In San Mateo County, in particular, households can include two working adults caught between not earning enough for self-sufficiency and making too much to qualify for help.
San Mateo County’s self-sufficient level is more than $75,000 — 349 percent of the $22,050 federal poverty level. Food stamp and free school meals eligibility cuts off at 130 percent — or $28,665 — and food bank programs end at 200 percent, or $44,100.
With the economy faltering, the county need has jumped and is expected to increase into the next year. A number of the needy are new to the system and unlike the stereotype, have a strong work history, a job loss or foreclosure and confusion about how to navigate the available services.
The stigma and myths of some offerings, like food stamps, add to the challenge of connecting the needy to the help, said Lenita Ellis, self-sufficiency manager for the county’s Human Services Agency.
"They may seem ridiculous, but they’re out there,” Ellis said, referring to erroneous assumptions about car ownership disqualifying individuals or officials checking one’s kitchen cupboards.
Current food stamp eligibility cuts off at $2,297 per month for a family of four. The county approves between 55 percent to 70 percent of applicants monthly but could be doing much more, Ellis said.
Just this week, the state Legislature took a big step toward eliminating one hurdle when a committee agreed to no longer require fingerprinting for food stamps, said Eric Manke of the California Association of Food Banks.
The federal government requires states have a fraud protection measure but does not mandate fingerprinting, a process that frightens those who wrongly believe it links to criminal databases, he said.
Elimination also saves the state approximately $8 million annually — a strong selling point during the current fiscal crisis, Manke said.
Money is also an important factor in food stamps for the county, Ellis said, because it is missing out in nearly $12 million by not having all eligible households enrolled.
The Second Harvest Food Bank of San Mateo and Santa Clara counties is pushing food stamp enrollment to end what Senior Director of Programs and Services Cindy McCown said is a "community issue” that must be tackled with both public and private approaches.
While children’s hunger issues grab a number of headlines, McCown pointed out the need of a growing elder population.
Pinpointing these faces of hunger helped drive the creation of the Hunger Index, a measurement of meals needed against the number of meals provided and lacking as compared to federal guidelines. Rather than describe the need in pounds as has been done, Starbird said meals are more easily understood by providers and the community at large. Another large change in assessing the problem is recognizing that not every hungry person needs three meals a day or that somebody described as food insecure is only missing one or two meals. Each person is different so the breakdown into meals rather than population numbers is more accurate, he said.
The 63 million meals needed in the county, however, roughly translates to 49 million pounds of food and would feed 57,000 people a year. Food assistance provides the equivalent of 21,000 people annually.
Food banks like Second Harvest have its own unique challenges, including stigma and cultural barriers like ethnic foods. The bank is also limited by income levels to which USDA commodities they can distribute. Commodities, like pork patties and cherries, come to the bank when the government is trying to stabilize an industry. They are limited to those who make less than 150 percent of the federal poverty level, or $33,075.
In addition to asking the community to donate — $1 equals two meals at Second Harvest — speakers at yesterday’s forum were told to lobby leaders, push for changes to eligibility requirements and remember that the face of the needy is varied. The money and food can be here if advocates know how to receive and use it, they heard.
"Is this problem solvable? I believe it is,” said County Supervisor Adrienne Tissier, who hosted the inaugural event along with Second Harvest and Genentech.
Michelle Durand can be reached by e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone: (650) 344-5200 ext. 102.
Info box: Hunger issues resources:
California Food Banks: www.CAFoodBanks.org
Insight: Center for Community Economic Development: www.insightcced.org
California WIC Association: www.CalWic.org
Bay Area Nutrition and Physical Activity Collaborative: www.BANPAC.org
Get Healthy San Mateo County: www.GetHealthySMC.org
San Mateo County Aging and Adult Services "Network of Care”: www.SanMateo.NetworkofCare.org
Silicon Valley Community Foundation’s Leadership Council: www.SiliconValleyCF.org
Second Harvest Food Bank: www.SecondHarvestFood.org