San Mateo County is 52 million meals short of meeting its need — a 10 percent increase from the previous year — and the situation is looking more dire due to food stamp cuts and the drought.
The 2012 Hunger Index, which measures the difference between the need for food and the ability of individuals to receive it, found that the 47 million missing meals in 2011 jumped to 52 million in 2012. In that same period, food assistance increased from 40 million meals to 44 million meals.
The increasing divide is worrisome, said Kathy Jackson, CEO of Second Harvest Food Bank, but the data should be tempered by noting that it comes from 2012 rather than today or even last year. The economy overall is in a better position but Jackson said signs of improvement like housing and rental increases ironically can make life tougher for those struggling to make ends meet.
“Poverty looks different here,” Jackson said.
A number of factors play a role in the hunger gap in San Mateo County and not all of them are quantifiable to pinpoint if the 10 percent increase in meal need also reflects other changes in those needing a safety net. However, Jackson said California as a whole ranks last in states for food stamp use among qualified individuals in part because each county operates its own system. San Mateo County’s use hovers about 40 percent while, in comparison, neighboring Santa Clara County is more than 50 percent. Santa Clara County in general has a narrower meal gap in part because its housing costs are lower, Jackson said.
In San Mateo County, Jackson said Second Harvest has two categories of user — people whose need might be short-lived and due to an unforeseen circumstance and working families who need help getting by. The second group is more worrisome because the cost of living isn’t going down, Jackson said.
“It’s not episodic so how are you going to bridge that?” Jackson said.
Looking forward, Jackson said her two biggest worries include one nationally and one closer to home.
The first is recent cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, known as SNAP or more commonly food stamps. The average family receives between $240 and $270 in benefits and will lose about $90, Jackson said.
“Can we possibly make that up? The answer is no,” she said.
The local issue on Jackson’s mind is drought. More than half the food distributed by Second Harvest Food Bank is fresh food and produce. A lack of rain means reduced crops and therefore less product for the food bank. What is available is also likely to see price spikes. With so much of the fresh produce donated, Jackson said the bank may not receive as much and therefore be left needing to buy replacements.
One silver lining to the Hunger Index statistics is the increase in food assistance even if it is lower than other counties or states, Jackson said. Literally one out of every six people receive some type of food assistance which makes it more likely that people know someone who has visited a food bank, collected food stamps or taken some other type of aid. Recognition takes away some of the stigma and encourages the needy to have the courage to ask for help, Jackson said.
“The toughest part is putting a face on local hunger,” Jackson said.
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