Demand for assistance from the local food bank and the state’s food stamp program CalFresh has continued to climb in Oakland and throughout Alameda County long after the great recession of 2008 has officially ended.
Annual calls to the Alameda County Community Food Bank’s emergency food assistance hotline nearly tripled to 38,528 from 2007 to 2011, while CalFresh case loads in Alameda County have nearly doubled since 2007, according to the food bank’s annual reports and data from the Alameda County Health Care Services Agency.
This data suggests recovery hasn’t yet arrived for people living without food security. Indeed, demand for food assistance is greater now than during the recession, officials say.
“It’s gotten worse. The number of people going to our agencies is more than pre-recession,” said Michael Altfest, communications manager for the food bank.
“Things have bounced back for people who are wealthy or who had means to begin with, but things have not bounced back for the people we serve,” said Keisha Nzewi, the food bank’s advocacy manager.
“People usually call at the end of the month when their CalFresh benefits run out, but we are getting those calls as early as the third and sometimes the second week of the month,” said Nzewi.
In 2012, 64 percent of the food bank’s partnering food pantries reported an increase in client numbers within the past year. They also distributed 2 million pounds more food than the previous year, according to the food bank’s annual reports.
Call volume to the hotline represents only the callers themselves, not the number of mouths that caller has to feed, Altfest said.
One food bank client at the Columbian Gardens pantry, Charla Bulich, has five family members at home. She said the most valuable thing she gets from the food bank is milk, which comes in quart-size, shelf-stable boxes.
“Milk is so expensive. With two teenagers at home, how can you afford that? It makes a big difference,” said Bulich.
Fridays — fresh produce days — are the busiest days of the week, said Andrew Roddy, a volunteer at the Columbian Gardens community food pantry in Oakland for the last five years.
Every Friday morning, Roddy hauls two truck beds’ worth of celery, carrots, potatoes and onions from the food bank to the Columbian Gardens distribution center. It doesn’t last long before clients carry it off.
“If we can get it bagged, it will be gone by 10 and we start at 9,” said Bill Walker, who has been volunteering at Columbian Gardens for 15 years.
While enrollment in CalFresh has gone up, it hasn’t lessened demand for food bank assistance. The Bay Area’s high cost of living is to blame, said Altfest and other food bank staff. The median cost of rent in Oakland went up 44 percent between 2000 and 2010, according to US Census data.
To qualify for CalFresh benefits, a family of four would need a gross salary of $31,322 a year or less. The median gross income for families in Oakland is $56,926, too high to qualify for CalFresh but not high enough to ensure food security, according to food bank staff.
“After rent, keeping the lights on, and transportation to and from work, they make do. But how do they feed their children? That’s where we come in,” Altfest said.
Anna Nguyen, who moved to the U.S. from Vietnam 15 years ago, collects canned fruits and beans, loaves of bread and boxes of instant mashed potatoes to feed her elderly mother, her daughter and her two grandchildren who live together in East Oakland. Nguyen, a part-time hairdresser, said she fell on hard times when she and her husband separated.
“It can be embarrassing… In my country, people have pride. But if your kid is hungry, what is pride?” said Nguyen.