Roughly 15,000 adults in Central Sierra counties can not afford to put adequate food on the table, according to a recent study.
Volunteer Noah Connel moves boxes of food through the food bank. Amy Alonzo Rozak/Union Democrat, copyright 2012
The findings were reported by the University of California, Los Angeles, Center for Health Policy Research in June, and showed the number of adults in low income households with food insecurity jumped about 4,000 in 2009 from an estimated 11,000 in 2007.
Those numbers represent residents throughout Tuolumne, Calaveras, Amador, Inyo, Mariposa, Mono and Alpine counties.
According to the study, food insecurity has increased significantly since 2001 among almost all segments of the state’s low-income population with nearly 4 million Californians reporting they couldn’t afford an adequate amount of food.
The study reviewed data collected by the California Health Interview Survey since 2001. Food security was measured by six questions in the survey that asked
participants about their eating habits in relation to their income.
“This is a serious problem and we’re seeing it in our numbers,” said Jeannie Hayward, director of the Calaveras County’s Resource Connection Food Bank.
She said the number of families in need has climbed at a staggering rate since 2008.
The bank provided food to about 71 families per month in 2008, but by June of this year that number had risen to more than 1,500 seeking assistance, Hayward said.
She said part of the jump could be attributed to the Resource Connection’s 2009 move to a much larger San Andreas facility that dwarfed other food bank sites, but numbers have continued to rise on a near-consistent basis every month.
The first five months of 2012 saw record high numbers of families seeking help obtaining food, Hayward said.
A survey of about 200 clients taken in February showed that about 30 percent were still running out of food despite receiving monthly assistance from the pantry and another 30 percent said they had gone without food on some occasions during the past month in order to pay for living expenses such as rent, Hayward said.
“I think a lot of families have run out of unemployment and maybe only one member works part-time,” she said. “We’re still seeing families coming through that say they’ve never had to go to a food bank before.”
The UCLA study noted that food security questions are only asked of adults in households with incomes below 200 percent of the poverty level, so the statistics likely underestimate the magnitude of the overall problem.
Barbara Woodward, assistant director for Interfaith Community Social Services in Sonora, said she doesn’t see the situation in Tuolumne County changing anytime soon due to the heavy emphasis on tourism dollars and lack of industry available to create jobs.
“The effects of the recession are still lingering,” she said. “There hasn’t been much change in unemployment rates since 2009.”
The number of families served each month by the organization’s food pantry has grown by an average of about 200 since 2009, Woodward said. Fortunately, she added, services have met the increasing demand through community donations, Sonora Area Foundation grants and support from other local service agencies.
The Amador-Tuolumne Community Action Agency, or ATCAA, which helps supply local pantries, including Interfaith’s, has seen increasing support from the community that correlates with the increasing need for services.
Since 2008, the amount of food in pounds the agency has received annually to help supply the local safety net has increased by more than 100,000 to about 1.4 million pounds, said Food Bank Director Lee Kimball.
Also, the number of people who have volunteered their time has increased from 766 total in 2008 to more than 1,000 in the first five months of this year, Kimball said.
“This is not the way it is everywhere, but it’s true in Tuolumne County,” said Kimball, who also serves on the California Association of Food Banks’ board of directors.
One of the things ATCAA has also shifted focus away from acquiring cheaper foods that come in larger quantities to more nutritious foods such as fresh produce and dairy products, Kimball said.
The UCLA study said that one of the important aspects of the problem with food insecurity is its relation to negative health outcomes, such as obesity and chronic diseases.
Tamara Burns, a registered dietitian at Sonora Regional Medical Center, said cheap foods that come in large quantities such as Top Ramen noodles can feature more refined ingredients that are higher in fat, sodium and carbohydrates.
“It’s a problem, because a lot of foods that are cheaper are also less healthy,” she said.
Burns said there are some inexpensive, nutritious foods available that she recommends to her clients, such as dried beans, rice and frozen fruits or vegetables.
She also suggested shopping local, buying food that’s in season and cooking meals from scratch for those with a tight-budget who are still looking to eat healthy.