“Sometimes we just have to deal with an empty stomach.”
Though some Sonoma County households saw their incomes rise in 2017, 60,000 low-income households – about 1/3 of county residents – couldn’t afford enough food to eat a healthy three meals a day, according to the latest Sonoma County Hunger Index report. “The positive news is that in 2017, more households had higher incomes, so more people could purchase enough food to meet their basic needs. That cut the number of missed meals in Sonoma County by half from 2016,” said Sonoma County Human Services Department Economic Assistance Division Director Felisa Pinson.
However, for the one-third of local households earning less than $50,000 a year, many that include children and seniors, going without lunch or missing breakfast was unavoidable. The annual measure of hunger in Sonoma County showed that lower-income residents missed more than 13 million meals last year. On average each week of 2017, each resident of a low-income household was able to purchase 14 meals, receiving six meals through food assistance programs, but going without one meal of the 21 required to meet U.S. Department of Agriculture standards for basic health needs.
Those residents would have missed even more meals without increased levels of help from local charities and government nutrition programs. Locally in 2017, food assistance programs, such as food banks and CalFresh benefits, provided 44.7 million meals, up from 44.1 million in 2016.
The major reason for hunger in Sonoma County was the rising cost of housing, which was at crisis levels even before the fires, according to members of the Sonoma County Hunger Index coalition. “Lower income residents usually rent, and, after the October fires, rents went up,” said Catholic Charities Assistant Director of Community Programs Cynthia King. “Families were forced to choose between having a roof over their heads and other basic needs, including food.”
One Catholic Charities client, who lost his home, is renting a room while struggling to find affordable permanent housing near his son’s school, said, “We often skip meals just to make it, many times my son only eats at his school. Sometimes we just have to deal with an empty stomach.”
The 2017 fires also affected residents’ ability to purchase sufficient food during the final months of the year. Short-term, disaster relief funds from the State helped those who lost homes and jobs. CalFresh, the county’s largest food assistance program, distributed $1.4 million in emergency benefits to an additional 4400 residents after the wildfires. Those funds allowed the purchase of food for 627,000 more meals, the equivalent of 3% of all meals provided by CalFresh benefits in 2017. Currently, about 16,000 households depend on CalFresh benefits each month.
The Redwood Empire Food Bank (REFB) also increased its efforts to provide food after the disaster, offering drive-through food distribution for the huge number of people in need. “In the first two weeks, we saw an average of 100 households every hour, eight hours a day,” says REFB Director of Programs Allison Goodwin. “People were coming to our office near the airport from all over the county, so we added distribution sites in Windsor, Coddingtown Mall, Crosspoint Church, Bennett Valley, Martin Luther King Park, Driven Raceway, Sonoma Mountain Village, Sebastopol, Petaluma, Sonoma Valley, Glen Ellen and Kenwood.” Goodwin says REFB gave out a weekly average of 250,000 lbs. of food after the fires, totaling 1 million lbs. in four weeks.
Other factors limiting low-income residents’ ability to purchase food included rising prices for food, utilities, gasoline and other necessities — a $50,000 income didn’t stretch as far as in previous years.
The Hunger Index Coalition believes that there are solutions to hunger in Sonoma County. “We can end hunger, but only if we work together,” says Godwin. “We need the community to keep working with us to stop hunger.” Charitable donations, food donations and individuals and groups volunteering with hunger relief programs all help, she says.
To learn more about local programs making a positive difference, visit the Sonoma County Hunger Index website and choose How You Can Help or go online to learn more about one of the Hunger Index partner agencies.