I met her on a Saturday morning at Prescott-Joseph Center in West Oakland, one of the Alameda County Community Food Bank’s 275 member agencies – the soup kitchens, food pantries and other community organizations that distribute food to our clients.
Exie lives nearby with her mother, who is disabled, and her 6-year-old daughter, Frances. Exie works as many hours as she can between caring for her family and taking classes at Laney College – just a few blocks from where I live.
When rent, utilities, medical bills and transportation take all the money they earn, many families like Exie’s are forced to make tough choices.
The only bill that can wait is groceries. To feed her mother and her child, Exie turns to the Food Bank.
Increasing need, decreasing funding
At the Food Bank, we haven’t seen signs of an economic recovery. In September 2008, I worked at a newspaper, where nearly every day we led with a picture of a worried trader and big, bold, fearful headlines about a dire economy. That month, the Food Bank referred 2,048 households to emergency food.
Last September, it was 3,770. That was the third month in a row we set a record for calls. FY 2012 marked the first time we responded to more than 40,000 calls from people whose pantries were empty.
People are lining up for food for three hours before their neighborhood pantry opens, rain or shine. More than 300 callers each month reach out to our Emergency Food Helpline for the very first time.
As federal, state and local safety-net programs are slashed, the Food Bank is losing funding and commodities while more people need our help. Government funding is a relatively small part of our budget. More importantly, our most vulnerable clients are losing that government support.
That means more people are turning to us, and more often.
Nearly half of the households we serve have at least one working adult. The unemployment rate is in the double-digits. This doesn’t count people who work less than they want to, or who have officially given up hope after years of looking. Of course demand continues to climb.
Our community has been stepping up with incredible amounts of volunteer time (equal to 34 full-time employees), food drives and donations. But there seems to be no end in sight to the tough choices many of the people we serve have to make—those who have always been our most vulnerable.
What can you do?
We can make a difference for the 1 in 6 people in our neighborhoods who depend on the Food Bank. We have studied the numbers, interviewed the people we serve, and created recommendations for policies that would create a culture in which hunger can be eradicated.
Here’s just one example. The Food Bank is working to improve access to the CalFresh program (commonly known as food stamps), so that families can purchase healthy food of their choice. This takes strain off the Food Bank, allowing us to serve more people in need, and full enrollment could add $107 million to our local economy.
After legislative visits, letter-writing and calls from our corps of anti-hunger advocates, Gov. Jerry Brown signed half a dozen bills to make feeding our community easier – eliminating costly and unnecessary fingerprinting requirements and providing tax credits to California growers who donate fresh produce.
These are small steps, but so important to people for whom a healthy meal can break their budget.
Together, we can do more than provide meals for people in need. We can end hunger. You and I can add our voices to those of our neighbors.
Like LaTanya, who I met on the bus to Sacramento for Hunger Action Day in May. A cancer survivor and a pillar of her senior housing community, she understands the power of community “sticking together and speaking up.” Through her work with the Food Bank’s advocacy team, she’s led a rally against budget cuts, shared her story with legislators in Sacramento, and educated and inspired her neighbors to be forceful advocates for change.
“I used to be hungry and homeless,” LaTanya told me. “I am an advocate so that no one else will have to go through what I’ve been through.”
LaTanya is still working hard to make ends meet for herself, while sharing food, love and passion for change with her neighbors.
Even if you can’t make it to Sacramento to stand with LaTanya and with the Food Bank, there’s a lot you can do from your desk with just a phone call or an email. Staffers report that when a legislator is unsure about an issue, personal visits and calls from constituents make more of a difference than those of paid lobbyists. The Farm Bill vote is coming up, and we will need you. Sign up for alerts here.
And you can vote. Your vote is your voice, and we need it more than ever. If you live in Alameda County, you can check that your registration is up to date here.
The choices we make in the next election have the power to change the lives of our neighbors.
For people like Exie, who despite hard times still holds fast to her dream of opening a restaurant someday in Oakland. For people like LaTanya, who have struggled and never lost hope for a better future for her neighbors.
And for people like you and I, who believe that access to healthy food is a basic human right.
Together, we can end hunger. Join us.
Miranda Everitt is communications coordinator at the Alameda County Community Food Bank and a proud Oakland resident. She has gotten over her fear of the phone just so she can call legislators’ offices. September is Hunger Action Month, when the Food Bank asks everyone in America to take action to fight hunger in their community. Learn more about helping out locally here.
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