What’s for dinner?
More locals than ever don’t know where their next meal is coming from. SN&R investigates the new face of hunger in Sacramento.
Sometimes it comes down to a burrito.
For Suzie Rosenberg, frozen burritos had long been a mainstay of a food brokerage business she ran with her husband in Sacramento. Together, they distributed frozen goods and other items to convenience stores up and down California and across Nevada. Burritos were the heart of their business, gobbled by construction workers in the booming construction industry, and providing 80 percent of their income.
Then the bottom fell out of the economy, and along with it the construction industry. More and more construction workers lost their jobs, fewer and fewer burritos were consumed, and Rosenberg received fewer and fewer orders for the item. A year ago, her supplier, Windsor Foods, stopped making burritos. Last summer, with their van repossessed and unable to make a go of it on other food products such as pierogi, Rosenberg, a 58-year-old grandmother, faced a chilling new reality—food stamps.
She is not alone. In Sacramento County, where 12 percent of people are out of work, hunger has become an increasingly ordinary fact of everyday life. Once you start looking, hunger is everywhere: Mom-and-pop stores with handwritten signs encouraging people to pay with food stamps; collection bins for canned goods at Midtown grocery stores and Starbucks; a popular annual race at Thanksgiving to raise funds for the hungry; a food drive for furloughed state workers last summer; a food pantry for students at UC Davis. Since 2008, Sacramento County applications for food stamps have risen steadily by more than 20,000. (see “Hunger pains”; SN&R Frontlines; October 28, 2010).
Despite this mainstreamed quality of local hunger, Rosenberg still felt, as many do, sheepish about needing the help.
“I have never been on any government program of any kind,” she said. “I felt ashamed and embarrassed about it.”
Rosenberg lives on the edge of Curtis Park on nice residential street in a rented garden apartment. She could be your neighbor, or the friendly woman making conversation in line at the store. She has two adult children and is a former homeowner in Fairfield.
Visit a local food bank and you will see plenty of others just like her.
On a rainy Thursday in December, for instance, Rosenberg fit right in at the River City Food Bank. In a small room at Trinity Cathedral in Midtown, she was joined by a blind person; a man who walked with a cane; and a big fellow who could have been a Raiders fan, arriving at the door on a Harley Davidson motorcycle and entering with a shaved head, tattoos and leather pants. Sitting next to Rosenberg, also waiting for bags of food, were a young father and his toddler daughter, who flipped through picture books featuring Sesame Street’s Cookie Monster. On the back of one book, Cookie Monster said, “I want something to eat.”
Indeed, we all want and need something to eat, cookies or otherwise. And this basic fact of life has become increasingly tough for many Sacramentans, due to high unemployment, high housing costs and stagnant wages. No matter who you talk to, the numbers tell the same story.
Locally, the Sacramento Hunger Coalition statistics show that, as of October 2010, 170,000 people in Sacramento County received CalFresh benefits, the new name for food stamps. Statewide, 3 million people receive CalFresh benefits, 52 percent of them children and 9 percent older than 60. SN&R also found that the number of households using food stamps in Sacramento County, which are actually debit cards known as Electronic Benefit Transfer, or EBT, has risen significantly in the last few years (see graph on page 19). In October, the U.S. Department of Agriculture released a report showing that 15 percent of Americans do not get enough to eat, known in official terms as “food insecurity.”
The facts on the ground at community food programs in Sacramento tell the same story.
At the Loaves & Fishes facility in north Sacramento, which serves coveted hot meals daily, the nonprofit averages 700 visitors a day—a 5 percent increase from December 2009. As with the River City Food Bank, the lunchtime crowds include all types of local folks. The long but peaceful lines includes those in wheelchairs, those arriving on bikes, those pushing shopping carts and those pushing strollers, all with the common goal of eating a hot meal.
As the diverse crowds at Loaves & Fishes indicate, getting something to eat has become a challenge for a wide range of people.
“We are seeing more families who are spending nights in the car or camping,” Janet Green, Loaves & Fishes director of outreach, said while standing in the midst of a busy crowd of visitors dodging the rain on their way to the dining room. “We are seeing more of the affluent, people who have recently lost their jobs or had their hours cut.”
Local voices also reflect this new face of hunger.
There is Rosenberg, of course, who still maintains her food brokerage business and has been steadily employed since graduating from high school 40 years ago.
Meanwhile at UC Davis, rising costs and tuition increases have led more students to try to get by with less. “A lot of people we knew [in school] were struggling,” said junior Hannah Kirshner, who launched a food pantry this month with friend Justin Gold. “With the tuition increases, students are forced to choose between academics and food, or they skip meals, or they just drop out.”
At Loaves & Fishes, one guest named Cheryl said she turned to the nonprofit in desperation after losing her job this autumn. A single mother of two, she said she is grateful for the hot food and the school on the grounds as she looks for her own place. “The end of the month is the worst time,” she said, “because [benefits] run out.”
“I don’t know what I’d do [without Loaves & Fishes],” agreed another guest, Angie. “It gives me a place to go and a purpose, though I expect to move into my own place by the end of the week,” she said as she swept steps, part of her voluntary chores.
Just as the definition of who is hungry has changed, so has the landscape of hunger.
Hunger is no longer something viewed on television in far-off places, accompanied by celebrity singalongs to raise awareness. Hunger is now sometimes around the corner, or just out the front door, or as you walk to your car and a man approaches and asks you to accompany him to a restaurant so he can get a meal. Hunger is also unevenly distributed and more concentrated in certain places than others, and at the mercy of Darwinian economics.
Travel with me for a moment to south Sacramento, along Stockton Boulevard. True, it is not a lovely spot, despite idyllic street names like Fruitridge Road, though there isn’t any fruit or a ridge in sight. The area is packed wall to wall, curb to curb with strip malls, some faded and run down, some new in faux-Mediterranean style, some boarded up and some parts patches of grass waiting to be built out. Depending on how you look at it, Stockton Boulevard is either an American Dream of entrepreneurship, or an American nightmare of suburban sprawl.
It is also considered a desert.
Not in the typical sense of the word, of course, with Bedouins and camels (except for Camels for sale at the discount cigarette shops), but in other ways. This long stretch of Stockton Boulevard, (and also significant parts of North Highlands and Arden Arcade), is considered by food and nutrition experts to be a food desert—a neighborhood characterized by high concentrations of poverty and an inability to walk to large supermarkets with fresh food and produce. Food deserts are also places with a prevalence of fast-food restaurants but a paucity of nutritious, affordable food alternatives.
Our tour of Stockton Boulevard bears this out. From Fruitridge to Elsie Avenue, a rough count in busy traffic yields more than 10 fast-food restaurants in about 4 miles. There are several large Asian grocery stores as well, and one traditional supermarket, Foods Co. Mirroring the dynamics of a food desert, the car- and asphalt-heavy strip does not invite walking, and while certain goods can be found at liquor and convenience stores, the prices are, well, all over the map.
For instance, I chose a basic item—milk—and visited neighborhood stores to see how much it would cost. At convenience stores and the Asian markets along Stockton, a half gallon of milk cost anywhere from $2 to $3; a whole gallon, $4 to $5. No matter the store, the milk was also the same brand, Crystal. At the Foods Co., though, a half gallon cost $1.38, about the same as at Safeway. The cost of a whole gallon was $3.39.
On Stockton Boulevard, in a nutshell (assuming you can find nuts there), you can get your taxes done, get a tan, have your vehicle emissions checked about every other block, buy a wig, buy a burger, find almost every variety of soy sauce imaginable, but not easily find something healthy to eat.
And this leads to the other curious fact of contemporary hunger: obesity.
In Sacramento County, 60 percent of adults are considered obese and 10 percent of children are considered overweight for their age.
“There are big voids out there, where it is hard to find something nutritious,” Bob Erlenbusch, director of the Sacramento Hunger Coalition, which commissioned a 2010 report on local food deserts, told SN&R. “Instead what you get is cheap, high-starch, sugary food. This creates all kinds of problems; diabetes, hypertension, HIV/AIDS are all exacerbated by poor nutrition.”
Food experts agree that high-starch, high-sugar diets can severely handicap children’s futures. If obesity sets in, particularly at an early age, they are likely to incur costly health problems. More immediately, children with poor diets can develop trouble with even the basic task of being in class.
“[Malnourishment] also contributes to developmental and learning disabilities,” Erlenbusch explained. “If you are hungry, you are not going to be thinking about learning but about food.”
Given the increasing number of local people unable to get by, many of them labeled the working poor, and wildly uneven access to healthy food, a number of measures have been introduced to help stop stomachs from grumbling.
Erlenbusch, for instance, spoke optimistically of a local farmers’ market owner who is considering accepting EBT cards. (Currently, only two of the 14 local farmers’ markets do so.)
For years, school districts have offered free and reduced-price breakfasts and lunches, with the number of students not reflecting the true need. According to the nonprofit California Food Policy Advocates, more than 85,000 children in Sacramento County receive free or reduced-price lunches—considered a benchmark for poverty—but this does not include the roughly 30 percent who are eligible but not participating. In Yolo County, 9,878 students receive free school lunches but 23 percent of those eligible do not participate; in El Dorado Country, 4,903 participate and 26 percent of those eligible do not; in Placer Country, 10,183 and 11 percent respectively. (These figures do not include those students who receive or who are eligible for free breakfasts.)
The River City Food Bank also plans to bring fresh produce to underserved areas by truck starting this month.
And underpinning all of this is the federal food stamps program, recently rebranded in California as CalFresh due to the stigma associated with being a recipient of such assistance.
The amount of assistance depends, and according to the guidelines, the monthly net income for a family of four is about $1,838, factoring in deductions for such things as child care. Gross income for a family of four is about $2,389.
But here’s the thing: Even with these efforts, it is not enough.
At the big-picture level, despite the efforts of federal, state and private programs, large sections of the population are still underserved.
“Sacramento County loses out on average $57,500,000 a year in federal nutrition benefits,” Tia Shimada, a nutrition policy advocate with the Oakland-based CFPA explained in a recent phone interview.
According to Shimada, Sacramento County also forgoes up to $103 million in annual economic activity because of low participation in the CalFresh program. To put it another way, every dollar spent in benefits generates about $1.80 in economic benefits for the Sacramento region.
Sometimes it really does come down to a burrito.
In October, Shimada authored a report examining the number of people receiving federal food assistance compared to the level of need. The report, “Lost Dollars, Empty Plates,” found severe underenrollment in the CalFresh/Food Stamps, program, both locally and statewide, with wide-ranging consequences.
The reasons for such lack of participation are complex. Shimada points to three in particular.
“California, unlike other states, requires quarterly reporting,” she said, while adding that legislation is in place under Assembly Bill 6 to change to a six-month reporting system that is used by most states. “California is also the only state to still do face-to-face interviews rather than phone interviews. The online system has many technical problems, such as asking homeless people for an address. The fingerprinting requirement for all adults is also a big barrier to enrollment.”
Erlenbusch also cited the nine-page application as an obstacle. Additionally, his organization also conducted a survey of local homeless this summer and found that many are not enrolled in CalFresh.
Rosenberg said the time involved and paperwork was a particular hurdle, including five hours spent with a caseworker and an examination of bank records. “You can’t own anything and have any savings,” she said, while adding her caseworker advised to move some funds away from her savings account to help qualify (individuals can have no more than $2,000 in overall holdings and cannot own a car worth more than $4,000).
Edith Martinez, food stamps outreach coordinator for River City Food Bank, agreed that there are bureaucratic hurdles. “There is not just one barrier, but several,” she said on a recent morning at River City, while informing new visitors about CalFresh in Spanish and English. “Bureaucracy is a big one, since there is not just one caseworker for each person but one caseworker for several people.”
At the same time, the demand for services has gone up at a time of steep budget cuts. According to Sacramento County’s Department of Human Assistance, in November 2008 there were 59,326 cases (approved applications for food stamps). By November 2010, there were 80,765 (see graph below).
This translates into an overworked staff trying to do more with less and ensuing delays and complications. Loaves & Fishes, for instance, just settled a lawsuit against the county for delays of up to a month for benefits that are supposed to arrive within three days. Meanwhile, Sacramento County is doing better than most counties in California.
“We rank second in California for our CalFresh participation,” Lucinda Serynek, spokeswoman for the Department of Human Assistance, said. “And we just received a Stampy Award for our high participation rate.”
Even those who manage to navigate the bureaucracy may sometimes be found ineligible.
David Mandel, director of the California Senior Legal Hotline, added that a significant number of California seniors—a growing population in Sacramento—cannot receive CalFresh help, particularly those receiving federal Supplemental Security Income. SSI is a needs-based supplement to Social Security income for those older than 65.
“The rationale is they can get extra [from SSI] instead,” he explained to SN&R. He also pointed out that SSI has been cut from $907 a month to $845 a month. “This arrangement apparently helps some families with children who get SSI, because they can exclude that income from the family unit and get C.F. for low-income adults,” he said. “But it’s a major blow to thousands of low-income seniors who could get more due to high housing and medical costs.”
Instead, seniors and many others are left to rely on a patchwork system of social-service agencies, food pantries and, if they qualify, food stamps.
Fend for yourself
The new year promises more of the same. Most expect the number of local hungry to, at best, stay the same. The high unemployment rate is expected to last until at least 2012. At the same time, the already meager amount available for food stamps could go down even more. As part of President Barack Obama’s recent Child Nutrition Act, Congress agreed to pay for it using funds from the food-stamp program.
Such is the curious, illogical world of hunger, one that includes rumbling bellies and obesity in a land of overall abundance, and in agricultural heartlands such as Sacramento County.
Ask anyone who receives food stamps, or try the Sacramento Hunger Coalition’s annual challenge of living on the benefits for a week (and be sure not to spend your daily allotment on an iced coffee and a bagel as I accidentally did on the first day), and you will also see it is not enough on a personal level. For an individual, CalFresh provides $31.50 a week or $4.50 a day.
“I could use about another $100, especially at the end of the month,” Rosenberg said.
Even so, Rosenberg, who is also diabetic, remains resolutely optimistic and fortifies herself with good spirit.
In the last few months, Rosenberg has learned to navigate this strange modern world of hunger, one that perversely includes her and her husband selling ice-cream freezers and pastries to boost their income and make rent. Along the way, she has overcome initial misgivings to find an inner strength that makes her see the glass, as it were, as half full.
She has learned to visit three local food banks each month to supplement her CalFresh benefits. Small things also make a difference, such as receiving a case of tomato sauce at food pantry or discovering a box of forgotten organic soup in a shopping cart in the Walmart parking lot. She has also started buying less prepared food and making more from scratch, though her diabetes makes it pricier.
The third week of the month is the hardest, because the benefits run out. “My husband and I call it ‘fend for yourself week,’ which means no prepared meals,” she said. “So he will pick up a loaf of bread, which you can toast and put peanut butter on; cold cereal; and ground turkey rolls mixed with rice to feed our dog.”
“I realized it is working with what you got to make it happen,” she said. “I also think of our soldiers, and it inspires me to not be such a wimp.”
She also stresses that she is grateful for her health and having family close by to lend a hand. Rosenberg adds that though she felt embarrassed about the need for food stamps at first, to her surprise and relief she has found a supportive community and met great people. She is also hopeful.
“A pastry known as an empanada is saving our life right now,” she said. “We are placing orders with 7-Eleven and expect a big order to come in, though we are taking a 3 percent commission rather than our usual 5. I really think we are going to make it.”
Sometimes it comes down to an empanada.