Hunger pains

New census data shows more households using food stamps

Single mother Caroline says she visits Loaves & Fishes at least every other day, relying on the center to help feed her three children. The free breakfasts and lunches provide one less expense as she searches for permanent housing; her government subsidy ends this month.

New numbers from the U.S. Census Bureau show that she is not alone: More people need help finding shelter and something to eat in Sacramento County. At a time of high unemployment, foreclosures and a stalled economy, the number of households in the county using food stamps rose by 13,000, to total 46,300, last year.

So for now, Caroline joins others in the Loaves & Fishes courtyard, waiting for a space in the cafeteria along with young and old people, laborers, those in wheelchairs and those in strollers. Locals involved with food-assistance programs are not surprised by the demand.

“We are seeing a dramatic increase in the number of families relying on food stamps and food assistance,” said Bob Erlenbusch, a staff member at the Hunger Coalition. “We are also seeing more of the working poor, such as those living on minimum wage.”

At the Sacramento Food Bank and Family Services, spokeswoman Kelly Siefkin says the “numbers have gone way up, [especially] in the last two years”; the agency receives 20,000 visitors a month.

“There has been unbelievable demand,” adds Sister Libby Fernandez, director of the nonprofit Loaves & Fishes just north of downtown Sacramento. Sister Libby told SN&R the center averages more than 600 visitors a day, a 4 percent increase from last year.

“We are seeing more seniors who are living on next to nothing,” said Janet Green, an outreach specialist for Loaves & Fishes. “We are also seeing more families, families that a month ago were in their own homes.”

Sacramento Food Bank’s Siefkin echoes those comments. “We are seeing more people who haven’t asked for help before,” she explained.

Loaves & Fishes helps feed visitors with supplies from the California Emergency Foodlink and donations from businesses such as the Campbell Soup Company and Starbucks. Caroline said she was particularly grateful for the hot meals and diversity of food, such as vegetables and beef stew. Such options are crucial, the Hunger Coalition’s Erlenbusch said.

“For those using food stamps [or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program], the choices aren’t always the healthiest ones,” he said. Most farmers’ markets don’t accept electronic food cards. And in many low-income neighborhoods, the only places to shop are small convenience stores. “This lack of access to good, nutritious food leads to obesity and health problems down the road, like diabetes.”

For local food banks and the area’s hungry, the problems are more immediate. The River City Food Bank, for instance, is temporarily closed after a fire burned down its Midtown facility this month, resulting in the loss of thousands of pounds of food. This, in turn, increases the demand at other area food-assistance centers.

“The end of the month is the worst time,” Green said. “That’s when people face the choice between paying for rent and paying for food.”