More people than ever are turning to food banks for help than ever before, says USDA.
Less work means more hunger. Oakland's nearly 17% unemployment rate (close to twice the national rate) means that in our city, right now, many people don't have enough to eat. And in outlying towns like Fremont and Hayward, the problem is even more severe.
Recently the USDA reported that in 2008 nearly 15 million US households were “food insecure” -- which means a member of the household did not have access to adequate and nutritious food at some point during the year. The number of people seeking free food from American food banks and food pantries is the highest recorded since USDA began collecting this information in 1995.
What does increasing hunger look like in Oakland?
At 9 o’clock Friday morning, the narrow streets of the Columbian Gardens neighborhood in East Oakland are choked with cars angling for parking spaces. Families with toddlers wrapped in fuzzy blankets make their way to the grassy area in front of 9854 Koford Road to join a multi-ethnic group waiting for the food bank truck to arrive.
Bill Walker, a scruffy white guy in a checked flannel jacket, walks around handing out green slips of numbered paper. He’s busy this morning: 215 people have shown up for what turns out to be an enormous quantity of onions and potatoes, a few cabbages, and some gigantic yellow grapefruit.
When Walker first started helping at the community center six years ago (after retiring from Pacific Gas and Electric), they’d get about five people a day picking up boxes of pasta, rice, beans, tuna, milk and canned vegetables at one time. Now, he says, they get between 20 and 30 people at any given time -- with an average family size of five to six.
Today is not the biggest crowd the volunteers have seen. Andrew Roddy, who works in the sparely furnished community center, reports that one day they distributed 375 tickets. But Roddy and his mentor, Lurlean Jackson (who started the food distribution program in 1977) say that demand has been growing recently.
The need is “more than it has ever been since I’ve been doing the food,” says Jackson. Despite her advanced age (which she declines to disclose), she refuses to retire from the role of community leader and food distributor that gives her “such a thrill.”
Aside from the weekly produce giveaway, Jackson and her team of loyal volunteers (who call her “Mom”) also hand out boxes of food to people who call the Alameda County Food Bank’s emergency helpline. This helpline matches locals in need with nearby food distribution centers like Columbian Gardens.
Brian Higgins, spokesperson for the Alameda County Food Bank, says calls to their emergency food helpline are up 43% compared to 2008 -- and 96% compared to 2007.
In Oakland, a city that’s struggled with generational poverty for decades, the number of people seeking food assistance has clearly risen. Most agencies and advocates attribute this to unemployment, which stands officially at 16.8 percent, and under-employment, which is harder to quantify. Reports from both private charities and public programs like WIC and school nutrition programs show that Oakland is digging its heels a little deeper into poverty. And though outlying areas like Fremont and Hayward have seen more dramatic increases in the need for food assistance, Oakland’s residents are still in need, sometimes desperately. (See the map of where food is accessible here.)
Gloria Garner, 52, and Ella Hughes, 22, met at the Columbian Gardens food distribution center. Between the two of them, they can name a half dozen ways to cook the potatoes in today’s giveaway – hash browns, French fries, smothered potatoes, baked potatoes, mashed potatoes. Garner supplements what she gets here with smoked neck bones or ground beef from Food Max or Pac-n-Save – “to get some meat for my belly!” she chuckles.
Garner and Hughes each has a different story for what brought them here. For one it was a messy split from a man in North Carolina that ended in eviction and a three-day Greyhound ride to live with her sister on 85th Avenue. With a son in prison and other struggles, she finds making ends meet without help like this difficult. For the other, it’s a household of family members up from Los Angeles staying with her and her mother and putting a pinch on her daycare salary.
Over in Fruitvale, where Michael Gayman helps serve hot meals and distribute produce out of the Catholic Worker building at 4848 International Blvd., he sees a lot of out-of-work day laborers seeking help. Two years ago when Gayman arrived in Oakland, he gave out about 10 meals a day and now it’s more like 70. Just recently he’s found people looking for more than food. “In the last two weeks I’ve taken four people into detox for help with drug addiction.”
Several blocks away at Street Level Health, Director Laura Lopez says the day laborers who sometimes eat lunch at the community clinic recently started stopping by for breakfast too. By offering coffee and pancakes in the clinic’s common room three days a week, Lopez says the organization helps the men avoid buying breakfast and offers a bit of nutrition. Without much work, these men are often hungry, says Lopez. Not that they’d admit it. “But you see when they’re coming they are asking for two or three plates,” she said.
Schools see rising demand for meals
In the schools, the number of parents requesting help feeding their kids has risen slightly (2%) but significantly, says Jennifer LeBarre, director of nutrition services. The number of folks who qualify for free/reduced lunch usually stays pretty steady, LeBarre says. “Just the fact that we have had more people apply is an indicator of increased need.” And out of those who qualify – almost 69 percent of all students this year – the number of people using the school food programs has jumped 6 percent.
In the last two years, Oakland’s WIC program has added 900 people to its rolls for a citywide enrollment close to 20,000 people. According to Linda Franklin, who directs the Telegraph Avenue and Eastmont Mall WIC centers, these increases are significant, though not as notable as those in outlying areas like Fremont, where enrollment has risen more than 30 percent over the last two years. In Oakland, she says, “They’re suffering, but it’s on a continuum.”
Franklin says she’s seen a drop in Spanish-speaking clients over the last few months. “What we’re hearing is people are finding jobs in Southern California and in Texas,” she says.
The push for healthy local food grows
Aside from those working on food distribution, Oakland has a rather large number of organizations working against hunger and food insecurity from a different angle. “We’re looking at ways to bring fresh, healthy, affordable, local food to Oakland’s low income neighborhoods,” says Hank Herrera, a local food justice advocate.
His vision, shared by grassroots organizations like City Slicker Farms, Soul Food Farms, Mandela Cooperative, Planting Justice and others operate with a goal of setting up systems in underserved neighborhoods that follow more of a self-sufficiency approach.
“It’s about insuring that people have the resources and the means to create access for themselves for the foods that they want,” he says.
In the meantime, it’s people like Roddy, Walker, Gayman and so many others who will keep Oakland families from going hungry today.
Like Lurlean Jackson says, “How could we not?”
TAKE ACTION AGAINST HUNGER
If your family needs immediate assistance with food:
Food Helpline: 1-800-870-3663 (FOOD) Hours: Monday - Friday, 9 am to 12 pm and 1 pm to 4 pm
To find a list of agencies that distribute food (hot meals and groceries), click here.
Also, ask around at community centers, libraries, and churches to find under-the-radar food giveaways.
WANT TO HELP?
Cash donations are almost always the most efficient way to help agencies provide food. But if you have a large quantity of food or other supplies to donate, contact the agency to ask how best to help. Agencies usually need volunteer help too.
510-635-3663, mailing address: P.O. Box 2599, Oakland, CA 94614 street address: 7900 Edgewater Drive, Oakland, CA 94621
510-533-7375, mailing address: P.O. Box 10131, Oakland CA 94601 street address: 4848 International Blvd, Oakland, CA, 94601
Columbian Gardens Community Center 510-615-5766 9854 Koford Rd, Oakland, CA 94603
Street Level Health 510-533-9906 2501 International Blvd, Oakland, CA 94601
Learn more about California food security, food justice and food policy work by checking out Roots of Change.