Food insecurity jeopardizes the health of one in four Californians

I know this is a health column, usually devoted to things most
lay people can do nothing about other than seek proper medical care
for and pray for the best, but this week I think we’ll take a
I know this is a health column, usually devoted to things most lay people can do nothing about other than seek proper medical care for and pray for the best, but this week I think we’ll take a detour.

Life in the South Valley seems pretty good, right? After all, people continue moving down here, or up here in my case. (I’m a Southern California native.) There are new shops and homes and services popping up left and right, but not everyone is feeling so secure.

New research released today by the UCLA Center for Health Policy shows that more than 2.9 million low-income adults in California are living with hunger or being forced to decide between food and other essentials like shelter and medical care.

Across the Golden State, as many as 900,000 people are going hungry some of the time, the report stated, and even those who are eating may not be getting the vital nutrients they need, especially small children, said David Cox, director of St. Joseph Family Center in Gilroy.

“When you’re having to spend 60 or 70 percent of your income just to keep a roof over your head and keep up with utilities, food is one of the first sacrifices,” said Cox. “People are missing meals or they’re not qualitatively getting enough proper nutrition. If you’re eating the same thing over and over because it’s cheap and economical, you’re not getting the full range of nutrients. It’s sustenance.”

Adults facing food insecurity, defined as either hunger or the risk of hunger, rose to 33.9 percent in 2003 from 29.1 percent in 2001, and the percentage of those experiencing hunger rose two percent to a total of 10.3 in the same time frame. National figures, on the other hand, remained stable, according to the report.

More surprising were numbers related to sub-groups within that population. Just over 40 percent of low-income pregnant women ages 18 to 44 found themselves food insecure in 2003, up 11.5 percent since 2001. The number of pregnant women experiencing hunger in that range more than doubled, reaching a rate of 16.1 percent.

In the South Valley, Cox estimates that St. Joseph’s is feeding at least five percent of the population with its food pantry services – hot meals for seniors and the homeless and supplemental food baskets for families on the brink.

“Especially in the last few years, we’ve seen a rise in the number of families that are using the service,” said Cox. “Most of them are working families, but these are families that are not working jobs that are paying sustainable or living wages.”

Food baskets, distributed twice a month to qualifying families, are not intended to supply their entire nutritional budget for the month, but to supplement the items families are able to afford and allow them to put additional funds toward necessities like medical care.

“Each of the baskets contains elements of all the food groups, including protein and fresh fruits and vegetables,” said Cox. “A lot of these families are eating, but they’re eating the things they can afford – rice, beans, tortillas, ramen noodles – and they either don’t have the money or the transportation available to go to a market that provides a nice selection of produce and meats.”

Hunger affects certain ethnic groups more than others as well. African-Americans are the most likely to go hungry, with more than 13 percent of the black population in the state reporting hunger; however, food insecurity strikes a broader section of other ethnic groups.

Latinos experience among the lowest rates of hunger, but they are the most likely group to find themselves food insecure, the study noted, with 38.2 percent of the state’s Latino population facing the problem. Whites, on the other hand, were among those least likely to be food insecure, but most likely to be hungry.

Going hungry can have dire consequences, especially for children, many of whom can become malnourished on a steady diet of sustenance foods like grains and pasta.

Napa, San Mateo and San Joaquin counties were named among those counties with the highest rates of food insecurity in the state along with Kern, Tulare, Sutter/Yuba and Shasta counties.

If you would like to help end hunger in the South Valley, contact the St. Joseph Family Center.

You can donate non-perishable food as well as fresh fruit at any time, though the staff does request a courtesy call to make sure that someone will be there to accept the food, process it and make sure that it is stored and distributed properly. For more information, call them at (408) 842-6662.

Other food banks in the area include Community Pantry, located at 30B Airport Dr., Hollister and Reach Out, a program run by St. Catherine’s Parish, which is located at 17400 Peak Ave., Morgan Hill. The Community Pantry’s telephone number is (831) 637-0340 and St. Catherine’s can be reached at (408) 779-3959. Volunteers at Reach Out are on hand to accept donations between 1pm and 2:30pm, Monday through Friday, but church staff can accept items if donors are unable to make their drop-off at that time.

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