Going Hungry

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In many ways, the Sacramento of 2015 is a world away from the Sacramento of 2008 and 2009. Six years ago, the region was trapped in what seemed to be a death spiral: Housing prices were collapsing, taking with them jobs and economic security, government revenues were plummeting, and everything that could be cut was being cut—to the bone and then some. Sacramentans woke up daily to a drumbeat of cataclysmic economic news: businesses going belly up, unemployment ticking north into double digits, construction sites abandoned pretty much overnight. By mid-2009, at the depth of the crisis, more than 25 percent of Sacramentans were living in poverty. 

Today, by contrast, unemployment is falling (down to roughly 7 percent in the city of Sacramento), businesses are relocating to the region, new restaurants and bars are opening throughout the downtown and midtown areas. The city is on the rebound, hipper, cooler and more vibrant than even a decade ago.

Yet below the surface, a significant portion of the economic dislocation still remains. U.S. Census Bureau data indicate that between 2008 and 2012, 16.5 percent of Sacramento County residents lived below the poverty line. Other, more recent estimates place the number higher, at 19.5 percent, or nearly 280,000 people. 

The poverty line is a measure of basic economic security that has, over more than half a century, been determined by federal government statisticians. In 2014, it was defined as $11,670 for an individual, rising incrementally with each additional family member: For two people, it is $15,730; for four people, it is $23,850; for a family of eight, $40,090. The measure is a cautious one: If a family’s income comes in above the poverty line, it does not mean economic security, but if it falls below, chronic economic insecurity is certain. For those at the bottom of the economic ladder, the scramble to survive each day with enough food and a roof overhead remains the dominant feature of life. 

Each month, Sacramento Food Bank & Family Services, with its more than 5,000 volunteers, feeds roughly 150,000 local residents since a merger with Senior Gleaners in December. Clients can receive a five-day emergency supply of food if they are in crisis, and on a regular basis they can show up once a month for food assistance by bringing proof of residency and photo identification to one of 12 distribution sites. The food bank, based in Oak Park, also helps another 1,500-plus people with other services, including donated clothes, parenting classes, gardening classes or GED courses. Thousands more are fed by other local programs, including Loaves & Fishes, which caters to many of the city’s homeless, and by several smaller food pantries run by religious institutions. 

The hungry are black, brown and white, immigrant and Sacramento-born, young and old, employed and out of work. Many previously considered themselves middle class. Their hard times and their struggle to find decent-paying, stable jobs are the legacy of the 2008 housing bust and employment collapse in a city where the median income has fallen by more than 13 percent in the past seven years. In those years, we saw out-of-work teachers and metalworkers, small-business owners whose companies failed because of the broader economic malaise, men and women whose economic fortunes collapsed during the implosion of local housing values, and university students caught in the vise of ever-higher tuition fees. There are others who have always been firmly working class or have spent their lives even further down the economic pyramid. They are, in short, a cross section of this diverse city.

In addition to the families that show up at Sacramento Food Bank for help, an increasing number of elderly residents, many of them living in assisted living facilities (or in private apartments loosely watched over by retirement community staff), receive donations delivered to them by food bank volunteers. One such person is 81-year-old Yvonne Davis. Volunteers call her twice a week to make sure she’s OK, and once a month they bring her food and visit with her. If the weather cooperates, they might go on a walk together.

“I haven’t had to miss meals,” says Davis, a retired nurse’s aide and widow whose children live out of state, and whose finances, once enough to make her a part of the middle class, have become increasingly precarious as she has run through her savings since her husband’s death in 2009. “I’m not out there holding a cardboard paper up saying, ‘I need food.’ I’m not at that point. I’m not homeless.” 

Photo: Blake Young, executive director of the Sacramento Food Bank, set up gardening classes so clients can learn to grow fruits and vegetables for themselves.

Blake Young, executive director of Sacramento Food Bank, says more than 240,000 “food insecure” people live in the greater Sacramento region. That’s roughly 18 percent of the population, on par with much of the rest of the country, where one in six Americans is food insecure on any given day, meaning that they worry about how to stretch their dollars to buy enough food for their families. Some respond to this insecurity by actually missing meals, others by sacrificing fresh produce in favor of cheaper, but unhealthier, junk food. 

Many, Young says, are retired and on fixed incomes. And, despite recent reforms in the application process for CalFresh, the state’s version of the federal Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program—commonly referred to as food stamps—the take-up rate (that is, the percentage of people eligible for the assistance program who actually apply) remains among the lowest in the country. Some have been scared off by an application process that until recently included fingerprinting and other potentially humiliating procedures. Others fear too close a look into their immigration status. Still others, the working poor, could not find time during the workweek to visit a CalFresh office to apply for the assistance. (Even though the application process has been streamlined and can be completed online, its decades-long legacy as an obstacle course still deters large numbers of people from applying.) As a result, in Sacramento and other major California cities, a well of hunger goes unmet by CalFresh. Young’s organization is at the forefront of this crisis. 

Lines outside Sacramento Food Bank and the region’s large pantries—Yolo County’s Food Bank is in Woodland, El Dorado’s is in Cameron Park and the Placer Food Bank is in Roseville—are reminiscent of the bread lines of the Great Depression. Each Thanksgiving, thousands upon thousands of free turkeys and bags of canned vegetables and other trimmings are given to Sacramentans who otherwise would go hungry on America’s feast day. On any given Saturday, thousands of bags of food—containing whatever surplus fruit and vegetables have been donated from local farms, cans donated by supermarkets, USDA surplus and food dropped off by local individuals— are distributed, not just at pantries, but by mobile volunteers working out of community centers, parks and schools in neighborhoods across the region. 

Those who receive aid from the food banks and pantries can still receive food stamps; charity assistance is not counted as income when welfare eligibility is determined. In reality, many of those in food lines don’t receive either cash welfare assistance or food stamps. For them, the food they receive monthly may be the lifeline preventing economic insecurity from morphing into malnutrition. 

“We have seen two major shifts in our lines since the recession,” says Young. “A lot of first-timers are coming to our program as a direct result of their being laid off or having lost their job, and if they have been hired back, it’s at much less money. The jobs they have secured keep them in the food line. The other trend is we’ve seen an increase in the senior population seeking services. A lot of them lost their benefits in the recession—private pensions and IRAs.” 

This is the tale of Sacramento’s hungry—of the people who show up at food banks and pantries around the city or rely on donated food deliveries because, for various reasons, they can’t afford basic supplies. Some have been hungry all of their lives; others are the region’s new poor. All have their stories to tell. 

Robin Woolsey, who studied for her GED at the Sacramento Food Bank’s SACA Center, peruses the bulletin board for other programs available to her.

UNTIL A FEW YEARS AGO, Robin Woolsey and her husband ran a small landscaping business. It didn’t bring in much cash, but she felt that it was better than the job she had previously held as a cashier in a local Home Depot. Then, when the economy tanked, their business went bust, as did so many others around the city. She looked for work in stores, warehouses and the like, but with huge numbers of people chasing whatever jobs came available, she failed to land anything. 

She ended up on welfare and food stamps. In her mid-40s, with four children and a couple of grandkids, she went to the appropriate agencies asking for assistance. She says she felt demeaned by the intimate, intrusive questions that they asked: questions about her marital status, bank account, work experience, background, attempts to find employment, her mental health, whether she and her husband had criminal backgrounds. They asked her whether she had food in her fridge and whether she was behind on her utility bills. “Oh my gosh, I didn’t want to do it,” she says of applying for food stamps. “I was torn. I don’t like being in the system. I don’t like the way they treat me. I felt like they didn’t want to help me. They treated me like junk. ‘You’re just a piece of crap asking for help.’” 

As a part of the workfare program that she also enrolled in to receive cash benefits from Temporary Aid to Needy Families, she had to volunteer at various agencies for 35 hours per week. When she came down with pneumonia, she recalls, she still had to go to work, inhaler in hand. Finally she bumped up against the program’s lifetime limits, reduced in California from 60 months to 48 months in 2011 in response to the state’s dire post-2008 fiscal straits, and was rendered ineligible for further cash assistance. 

At the same time, Woolsey began attending the food bank’s Saca Community Learning Center, off Del Paso Boulevard, studying for her GED in a last-ditch effort to make herself more employable. In an era of high unemployment, she figured that people her age and lacking a high school diploma weren’t hot commodities for employers. She had started applying for jobs but, despite getting some interviews, somehow she never made the final cut. Perhaps with a GED, she thought, she could get a job in a local hotel or something higher up the retail chain. 

At the end of 2013, her situation grew even tougher. Her husband was diagnosed with advanced liver and colon cancer and, with him too sick to either work or drive, she had to shuttle him from one medical appointment to the next in between her classes and her job searches. 

“I fell on some hard times,” she says, recalling how she had not been able to buy milk and cereal for her children, how she had survived only through the gifts of food left on her front porch by concerned neighbors. 

Woolsey, now nearing 50, has come tantalizingly close to passing the GED test, so she continues cramming. On food stamps, she has roughly $500 a month to spend on food for her family. Some months it goes up, other months down. “I’m pretty thrifty with food. I come from a large family,” she says. “I learned how to cook big pots of spaghetti and stews. I learned to make food stretch. I don’t get food stamps till the ninth of the month. I’m pretty tight between the first and ninth of the month.” 

When her husband qualified for disability, that income was then counted against her food stamps, and the amount the family received for food was reduced. “I shop thrifty, at 99 Cents store, Grocery Outlet, sales coupons,” she says, explaining that some foods she likes—turkey breast, for example—she simply can’t afford. “That’s the only way I can make it stretch for me and my family.” 

THAT ROUTINE stretching of inadequate resources is something that one young woman, Tina (not her real name), knows well. At the food bank, she, too, enrolled in GED classes. (She left school at 17.) In her mid-20s, jobless, without stable housing, with a 5-year-old son, she says she grew up moving from home to home, her large family—her mother bouncing from one low-paying service-sector job to the next, her father, in recent years, disabled—trying to stay one step ahead of the rent collectors. 

Hunger was a common occurrence, says Tina. “Toward the end of the month, we’d depend on food closets and getting help. When I was a kid, we spent a lot of time eating basic, bland food: Top Ramen or hot dogs and macaroni, or just sauce and noodles. There’d even be nights we’d eat oatmeal for dinner. We missed quite a few meals when we were kids.” 

There have been times when the family has been so hungry that they called Tina’s son’s school and asked for help. A kindly teacher came by and dropped off bags of food. 

Tina wants to be a chef. She says that she has dreamed of this as a career since she was 9 years old, and she has worked low-end jobs at Subway, at a McDonald’s in Missouri, and in a small Italian restaurant. But so far, in her recent search for work, she has come up empty. Like Woolsey, she has found that navigating a tight labor market without any educational qualifications is a bridge too far. 

Computer training offered by the Sacramento Food Bank has helped Alicia Brown sharpen her marketable skills. She describes the food bank as a saving grace, and says she and her daughter, Spairro, might miss meals without it.

FOR 32-YEAR-OLD Alicia Brown and her 7-year-old daughter, Spairro, stretching of resources has also been her daily regimen. Brown, who volunteers with a local youth group in Oak Park, receives some state assistance for providing home care for her aunt, who is on kidney dialysis and suffers an array of other serious medical ailments. But the amount doesn’t cover all of Brown’s needs. She doesn’t live with her aunt, and she has to cover her own rent and other expenses. Moreover, when her income went up slightly (she began receiving payment for 130 hours a month of her home help work, up from 100 hours, making it more or less a full-time job), she found that the raise was essentially canceled out by the reductions in her CalFresh check that kicked in the following month. 

Brown estimates that, after paying her $600 monthly rent for the small one-bedroom apartment that she shares with Spairro and coughing up $40 to $50 for gas and $50 for basic car insurance, she is left with at most $200 a month to feed herself and her daughter. Some months, it’s more like $150. That works out to roughly $1 per meal for each of them. She doesn’t like buying junk food and finds that eating healthfully pushes up against her budgetary limits. 

For Brown, Sacramento Food Bank, which she began using after Spairro was born, has been a saving grace—because of the food it gives out and because of the gardening classes that it offers, teaching locals how to grow squash, eggplant, watermelon and other fruits and vegetables. If it didn’t exist, she says, she would likely have to miss meals so Spairro could eat. “When I get [to the food bank], I assess what they have. I start working out what I can do with what they have. I like sauteing the vegetables. My daughter loves eating raw vegetables and fruit.” 

The food bank and its cluster of resources and classes have become something of a social focal point for her. “I kinda like it,” she says. “I tell a lot of my family members about it, too. It’ll give you something to do, have fun doing it.” 

ARYAN RAHIMI, AN IMMIGRANT from Afghanistan, felt the same way. He worked as a procurement officer for a World Bank project in his home country, and has ambitions of attending college to study business or accounting. But to do so, he has to get his English up to speed. And so, while he sought employment to tide them over, he and his wife immersed themselves in learning their new language. 

The couple began using Sacramento Food Bank and its ESL classes a few months after arriving in the city. (He relocated here because his sister already lived here.) While he and his wife studied four days a week and his school-age daughter went to school, the couple’s younger son played in the food bank’s day care center. It is, Rahimi says, “a really nice place. Every service the food bank provides is free of charge.” 

Once a month, Rahimi’s family would receive an allotment of free food: some fruits and vegetables, perhaps some eggs or chicken. It supplemented the CalFresh assistance they received and meant that the Rahimis had enough to eat while he worked to realize his dream of going to college. He believes that, because of the help he has received from the food bank, he will be ready to enroll in higher education sometime this year. He also reports that he is no longer using the food bank’s services. 

“WHAT DOES HUNGER LOOK LIKE?” asks Genevieve Levy, a programs director at Sacramento Food Bank. She wears a black food bank shirt and sits at a desk in her second-floor office, working on her laptop. Levy, a UC Davis graduate, has worked with the organization for nine years, oftentimes with the children of clients. “For me, it’s more nutrient hungry. People aren’t getting enough meals, and when they are they’re eating crap; it leads to a lot of problems, like diabetes and obesity.” Too often, she says, the children of her clients end up overweight themselves. 

So horrified was Blake Young by the dietary problems facing his food bank’s clients that, a few years back, he set up gardening and cooking classes so that local residents could learn about healthier foods. “We believe we are part of the health care industry,” Young explains. “We’re a preventative piece, if you will. That’s our philosophy in running food programs: We want to be a part of the solution.” Which is why the food bank has also integrated GED classes, parenting classes and other educational programs into its day-to-day operations. 

THERE IS NO END IN SIGHT to Sacramento’s hunger epidemic, although as the economy improves, there’s hope the lines at Sacramento Food Bank will shorten. But many of today’s hungry are members of the working poor, such as Alicia Brown, or unemployed workers such as Robin Woolsey. 

“We’re seeing a lot of people who are right on the edge, right on the margins,” says Dan Allen, the food bank’s adult education program manager. “We’re working with more people who aren’t walk-in homeless. We have a lot more serious people now who are trying to work their way back into employment and are finding it difficult.”