Nutrition, Poverty, UFW, Wages

Hunger Pains

From MontereyCountyWeekly.com, Sara Rubin, 16 Feb 2012.

Buying Time: If there’s one defining experience of accessing public assistance, it’s waiting. Lines at the food bank and the county social services office and up to 30 day waits for CalFresh application processing can deter eligible individuals from applying. Photo by Nic Coury.

Buying Time: If there’s one defining experience of accessing public assistance, it’s waiting. Lines at the food bank and the county social services office and up to 30 day waits for CalFresh application processing can deter eligible individuals from applying. Photo by Nic Coury.

With more than a quarter of Monterey County’s children living in poverty, accessing food takes priority.

Children ride around on tricycles in the King City Fairgrounds parking lot. They look like they’ve gathered to play on a sunny morning, under the watch of grown-ups who stand around talking, some sharing coffee and breakfast burritos and wearing jackets and hats against a morning chill. It’s empty pushcarts next to the adults – the jerry-rigged, ragged vessels they will use to tote food home – that give any hint at what’s actually happening here.

The line is for a monthly distribution from the Food Bank for Monterey County, where more than 500 families will fill small carts with food.

Against the backdrop of fallow February fields, there’s a striking barrenness to the scene. There is also a bitter irony: Most of the needy in line are farmworkers by summer, picking the crops that have turned the so-called Salad Bowl of America into one of the nation’s most prolific sources of healthy vegetables.

But feeding themselves and their families is its own challenge.

“The people harvesting this food do not have access to this food,” says Ambar Tovar, coordinator of the Public Benefits Program for the United Farm Workers Foundation. “They are the ones bringing the food to the table, but they are the ones that go hungry. That’s what Cesar Chavez would speak about.”

The UFW created the foundation in 2006 to help its own members and their families access programs and benefits that are available to this mostly undocumented immigrant population. The foundation has since opened Salinas and Greenfield outreach offices to serve Monterey County’s farmworkers, specifically dedicated to increasing enrollment rates in CalFresh, the program formerly known as – and better known as – food stamps.

Tovar’s mission, powered by a two-year, $75,000 grant from the California Department of Public Health, is to make sure farmworkers understand when they’re eligible. For most, not only can they not afford to feed their families with meager earnings – $15,000 a year for three quarters of the county’s farmworkers, according to a 2011 report by the Central Coast Health Network – but they’re letting public benefits slip by.

An estimated 52 percent of people eligible for CalFresh don’t receive the benefit, based on a 2010 report by the California Food Policy Advocates.

Illiteracy, pride and a lack of transportation all contribute to that gap, as do reporting demands, like quarterly document requirements. “If they’re only working six or nine months a year they’re not going to miss a day of work to go to an interview to get CalFresh benefits,” Tovar says.

Even as budget cuts strike government jobs, the county Department of Social and Employment Services has kept a five-person outreach team to traverse the county educating the poor on benefits they qualify for, and how to get them.

While the sun shifts, making the hundreds of bundled people waiting in the King City parking lot appear suddenly over-dressed, the county staff work the line, handing out fliers with CalFresh eligibility information.

All of these rigorous efforts still aren’t enough to reach most of the county’s hungry. About half of the people in the 90,000 households countywide who receive food bank assistance aren’t eligible for public benefits at all, and that’s for one simple fact: They’re undocumented immigrants.

But for undocumented parents of citizen children, their households are still eligible for CalFresh (prorated based on number of legal residents). With more than a quarter of Monterey County’s children living below the federal poverty line, Tovar says getting those families to overcome fear around government agencies is imperative for helping quell hunger in rural areas.

With more than 22,000 children often uncertain of where their next meal will come from, County Director of Social and Employment Services Elliott Robinson says it’s essential to get everyone who qualifies for CalFresh enrolled in the program.

“When you think about how much money it takes to put a roof over your head, to feed yourself, to clothe yourself, to get to and from work, it’s a pricey endeavor,” Robinson says. “All those families are facing deep challenges putting food on the table.”

As the Great Recession lingers, food donations are a fraction of what they once were – while supermarkets and processors formerly sent semis with surpluses every three weeks, today Food Bank for Monterey County is lucky to welcome in a truck every five months. Seventeen percent of the county lives in poverty. But an extensive government and nonprofit network has never been more strategically innovative in its efforts to end local hunger.

• • •

Near the back of the line snaking through the parking lot in King City, Angelina Mora intermittently holds her 3-year-old daughter on her hip. She usually lines up among some 800 recipients for the food bank’s monthly drop in Greenfield, where she lives. In the winter, she makes the trip to King City, and waits to approach pallets of potatoes, oranges, eggs, canned green beans and cranberry juice.

After Mora had kids, traveling to Yuma for winter work became impossible, and she says she’s been unemployed since November. “There is no work,” she says in Spanish. She’s already enrolled in CalFresh, but still depends on the food bank to make sure there’s enough to eat.

A seasonal spike in benefits applications corresponds to seasonal unemployment cycles: Applications in November are double what they are in June. Even when seasonal ag workers do have jobs, many of them would still qualify for CalFresh, but enrollment numbers still decline.

“They feel, ‘I’m working. Even if I meet the income guidelines, I don’t need to use it,’” Tovar says.

She works on dismantling the barriers to enrollment, starting by dismantling myths about CalFresh and public assistance. Among the most common: that children will have to enroll in the military; immigration officials will be notified; that the money will need to be paid back.

There’s also a cultural barrier. “In Mexico, there is no safety net program. They are navigating a system that is new to them,” Tovar says.

The UFW Foundation, Catholic Charities and county staff also direct South County’s growing indigenous Mexican population to the Binational Center for the Development of Oaxacan Indigenous Communities, a Fresno-based nonprofit with two of its five offices located in Monterey County (Greenfield and Pajaro). There, bilingual interpreters – Spanish and Triqui, Spanish and Mixteco – can help translate for non-Spanish speakers from the southern Mexican states of Oaxaca, Puebla and Guerrero.

Estela Ramirez, a Triqui interpreter at Centro Binacional, says almost all the 3,000 indigenous Mexicans in South County are farmworkers. “In the winter, when there is no work, they live off their savings and CalFresh,” she says in Spanish.

Ramirez worked in the fields when she first moved here from Oaxaca six years ago. She and her four-member family depend on CalFresh in the winter when her husband isn’t working in ag.

She says many indigenous families, often with four to eight kids, rely on filling staples like rice and beans to nourish them through the winter as savings dwindle.

Robinson says benefits are essential in this region with seasonal surges in unemployment. “In our community, people come here to work, not to receive public assistance,” he adds.

Being poor here is a better prospect than being poor in Mexico, Ramirez adds, because benefits like CalFresh help sustain families through hard times.

Keeping the county’s poor nourished – and not just fed junk that leads to other problems – is a challenge itself. Jason Johnston, a physician’s assistant at Clinica de Salud in Greenfield, counsels his patients on the importance of eating fruits and vegetables, and refers his indigenous patients to Centro Binacional, around the corner.

“When folks are working constantly eight months of the year, they don’t have time to cook,” Johnston says. “And the rest of the year, they don’t have the money to buy healthy produce if they’re barely paying the rent. It’s a struggle, whether it’s time or money.”

• • •

A knee-high salad bar in Steinbeck Elementary School in East Salinas displays a small color wheel of vegetables: corn, beets, pineapple and iceberg lettuce. The children organize themselves with grown-up-like order and file down the salad bar, serving themselves.

For most of them, this free school lunch will be their biggest meal of the day. In the Alisal Union School District, 89 percent of students qualify for free and reduced priced meals. Because the district exceeds an 80-percent federal threshold, they serve the entire student population instead of verifying records for each individual student.

Foodservice Director Irene Vargas runs a $4.3 million operation, which has been offering salad bars for almost a decade. She estimates 80 percent of students’ families struggle to put food on the table, leaving school breakfast, lunch and two snacks the only meals some of them will eat.

In addition to feeding hungry children, Vargas is on the leading edge of a shift away from simply serving up calories to serving healthy meals.

She’s committed to creative recipes, extending the lives of cheap U.S. Department of Agriculture commodities by incorporating fresh, local foods (think pureed parsnip with mashed potatoes). Her newest creation is baked sweet potato sticks sprinkled with cinnamon, a French fry substitute.

The drive toward healthier options, part of the apparent oxymoron that obesity and hunger can plague the same low-income population, isn’t actually all that surprising. For kids who may not have dinner at home, they train themselves to eat the most calories on the cheapest budget. “If you give them a dollar or two, they buy a bag of chips, which is bigger than a banana and an apple,” says Lupe Covarrubias of the Health Department’s Network for a Healthy California.

Like their parents who struggle to overcome barriers to CalFresh, kids are reluctant to adapt to healthier foods. “It’s a culture thing here,” Vargas says. “They want to bring their tamales from home. Some parents think an overweight child is a healthy child.”

Back in Greenfield, Johnston says most patients he sees at Clinica are overweight. “We spend a lot of time trying to change diet behaviors,” he says.

Improving access to healthy food is no easy feat. But the nonprofits helping feed the county’s hungry have taken note of the irony that those who harvest the healthiest food can barely afford to eat at all, and as they try and improve the CalFresh enrollment rate, they’re also trying to get more nutritious food on people’s plates.

In season, the Food Bank unloads pallets of produce, creating essentially a free farmers market. People walk away with about 50 pounds of fresh vegetables apiece a month in the summer. And 20 percent of the state’s CalFresh-friendly farmers markets are on the Central Coast, where 19 markets accept EBT cards, the electronic benefit transfer cards that have replaced paper food stamps.

Salinas-based ALBA Organics funds a match program, giving customers a dollar for every CalFresh dollar they spend at farmers markets, backed by MC Gives! contributions. Last year, ALBA leveraged an additional $6,000 at local markets.

As public benefits administrators trade the old model of serpentine lines and long waits at a county office for in-person interactions and open-air markets, Social Services Outreach Coordinator Annette Gallegos sends a five-person outreach team all over the county to food bank lines, churches, and neighborhood gatherings.

They’ve been recognized by the USDA as one of two counties nationwide to be named a “Hunger Champion Mentor” in 2008.

“A lot of our clients need a lot of hand-holding through the entire process,” says Leslie Sunny, Food Bank executive director. “Being a point-of-entry is not enough.”

• • •

Towering stacks of Cheerios, canned goods, boxes of fresh pastries and cases of soda frame food bank staff and volunteers sweeping the floor. As outreach workers strive to access a greater percentage of the county’s growing numbers of working poor, they need more resources than ever before. But the supply side of the system – purchasing, sorting, moving perishables quickly – encounters some of the same economic challenges as many of the hungry people it serves.

Food banks and school lunch programs are, by design, dumping grounds for surplus foods. The USDA buys some $2 billion of food a year to stabilize market prices, quickly moving canned peaches or string beans to avoid a glut that sinks the value of those goods. USDA then sells those commodities cheaply.

Even at discounted rates, the cost of food keeps rising. In the past year alone, a truckload of USDA peanut butter soared from $37,000 to $72,000 a load. Playing a sort of financial Tetris, Sunny stretches her $100,000 USDA allocation for the next six months by ordering pinto beans, ground beef, apricot halves and applesauce – no peanut butter.

Sunny says she stretches her $1.5 million annual budget as far as possible, boasting that with each dollar donated she puts out $8 of food. There’s really no choice if the Food Bank hopes to continue to serve an increasing number of Monterey County’s hungry: In 2004, the Food Bank received 850,000 pounds of food donations from retailers, and in 2011, only 150,000.

Meanwhile, more people than ever rely on public assistance. Since 2006, the average number of households in Monterey County receiving CalFresh has more than doubled from 6,000 to 14,000.

Increased enrollment numbers could reflect progress on the part of a ramped-up outreach effort, but it’s a progress that’s morbid at best: “I don’t know if it has increased because we’re doing outreach or because the economy has declined,” Gallegos says.

Sunny shares a safer observation: That as hard as things are, and as many there are who already seek help, there are plenty more that remain unseen and out of reach.

“There is hunger here in Monterey County,” she says, “and it is hidden.”

Source: MontereyCountyWeekly.com, “HUNGER PAINS” by Sara Rubin, 16 Feb 2012.

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