During Hunger Action Month, Alameda County’s food bank urges awareness, donations
on September 7, 2011
This September, in an effort to encourage public engagement in the fight against hunger, Alameda County’s Community Food Bank is working with 200 food banks nationwide to promote “Hunger Action Month.” Through town hall meetings with city and state legislators, the “30 Ways in 30 Days” Campaign—which offers a calendar of simple ways people can take action throughout the month—and encouraging people to wear orange to support Hunger Action Month on “Orange Wednesdays,” the food bank hopes to increase monetary and food donations, and involve more volunteers and advocates in their work.
According to a hunger study conducted by the food bank in 2010, one in six Alameda County residents use its services. That’s a 23 percent jump since the group’s last study in 2006—even though the county’s population has only grown by one percent since then—and it means that 9,000 more people need food assistance each week.
Michael Altfest, the food bank’s communications manager, said that this July alone the food bank’s help line received 3,500 calls from households, or approximately 11,700 individuals, seeking assistance. “Calls are coming in from every single corner of this county,” said Altfest. “Anyone reading this article probably has a neighbor who needs food assistance.”
Of those in need, almost half of them are children. Keisha Nzewi, the food bank’s advocacy manager, said that a major contributing factor to the high call volume is that kids have been home for summer vacation. “Usually, kids will get meals through the schools,” Nzewi said, “but with school being out, parents have to provide more meals.”
The food bank serves everyone in need, offering its services regardless of one’s income level or the number of meals one has missed. “There’s no specific definition of hunger, or someone who qualifies as hungry,” said Alfest. Because of this, he added, the items that the food bank distributes through its 275 member agencies are handed out for free and without conditions. “They can’t require people to volunteer time, attend religious services, or be of a certain creed,” he said.
In Alameda County, hunger affects people across generations as well as racial and ethnic lines. “Hunger is everywhere, it’s in your neighborhood,” said Nzewi. “You can’t just say it’s people who are unemployed. You can’t just say it’s homeless people. You can’t even say it’s one ethnic group over another. It’s not.”
To reach people across the county, the food bank works with member agencies such as food pantries, soup kitchens, senior centers, and after-school programs which distribute the food to local neighborhoods. “We work kind of like a CostCo,” said Nzewi. “Agencies can purchase food at a much more discounted price, like fifteen cents per pound for vegetables.”
On a recent Friday morning, as workers hauled crates of canned food and fresh produce off of trucks and into the food bank’s massive storage space, which takes up the vast majority of the facility’s 118,000 square feet, Nzewi pointed to two women chatting at the checkout counter. “We also have a nutrition program,” she said. “We make recipes available for clients to teach them about different, healthier ways to cook the food they receive.”
In addition to its help line (1-800-870-FOOD) and offering nutrition education services, the food bank has a multilingual food stamp outreach program. Through different workshops and trainings, it educates low-income residents about Calfresh, California’s food stamps program. Through Calfresh—known federally as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)—eligible low-income residents are given special debit cards they can use to purchase food at most grocery stores. Many of the food bank’s clients, however, are those who are not eligible for Calfresh, because they don’t fall within the accepted income bracket. “We have families coming in who can’t get food stamps, because they’re making $40 above the required income level,” said Altfest. It’s especially hard for families towards the end of the month, he says, “during that time after they’ve paid all their bills and are waiting for the next pay check.”
Food bank employees agree that the problem of hunger in America is different than in developing nations, where hunger is often chronic and even fatal. “Here, it’s not that people are hungry all the time, it’s an occasional struggle for food,” said Nzewi. “Kids don’t die of malnutrition in our country.” Thanks to the federal food stamps program, and Women Infants and Children (WIC), a federal nutrition program that offers food, counseling, and health care services to low-income women and children, “it doesn’t happen anymore,” she added.
But cuts to state and federal budgets threaten the future of these programs, said Nzewi, as well as the extent to which food banks can provide support to local neighborhoods. “There’s a lot of initiatives but unfortunately those initiatives are all under attack, because in our Congress it’s not being prioritized,” said Nzewi. Cuts to the federal Emergency Food Assistance Program, through which the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) buys surplus food from farmers and donates it to food banks, could mean a 20 percent cut in food banks’ reserves. “We get a portion of our food through the USDA’s bonus commodity program,” said Altfest, “If the USDA doesn’t purchase that food from the farmers and give it to the food banks, that’s food we would no longer have and would have to find ways to make up that gap, either through food drives or otherwise.”
For Alameda County, cuts to this program could mean over a million pounds of food would not make its way to the food bank. The country’s smaller, rural food banks that could lose half of their food, said Nzewi, adding, “Anything and everything that feeds people is threatened at the moment.”
Despite these cuts, Nzewi said Alameda County is lucky compared to other parts of the country. “We have very strong elected officials on our side, in Sacramento and in DC. We don’t have to fight to convince our legislators, we just have to arm them with stories,” she said. On September 29, the food bank will host a Hunger Town Hall Meeting at which community members can address concerns to Alameda County Supervisor Wilma Chan, state Assemblywoman Nancy Skinner, and county representatives. “This will be an opportunity for people to share their stories, and speak directly to those legislators,” Nzewi said. “It will offer a dialogue, hopefully with solutions on how we get through this year and fight for more resources next year.”
Among its other advocacy-focused activities this month, the food bank is hosting an Advocacy Open House on Thursday, September 8. Open to the public, and organized by the Community Advocates Against Hunger—a group of volunteers that includes former food bank clients and members of its partner agencies—the dinner will celebrate the group’s accomplishments over the last year and discuss its advocacy goals. “We’re recruiting anyone who wants to learn how to be a hunger advocate,” Nzewi said, “Come one, come all, we need you.”
Additionally, through its “30 Ways in 30 Days” campaign, throughout September the food bank will share simple ways for the community to get involved in its activities. Miranda Everitt, the food bank’s communications coordinator, has been running a fiery social media campaign on Facebook and Twitter that offers daily tips on how people can help. “We have things like: Start a virtual food drive, talk to your book club, schedule a volunteer day for the holidays, and lots of other little things people can do from their desks, like contacting their senators,” said Everitt.
A simple way to participate in Hunger Action Month is to start donning the color orange once a week for “Orange Wednesdays.” Every Wednesday in September, people are asked to wear the color orange to show their support for the fight against hunger. “It’s shows our team spirit,” Nzewi said, “it starts a conversation, and makes people ask, ‘What’s that?’”
The food bank also accepts donations in a variety of ways—the “tiny tickets” method encourages people to mail in used BART tickets with small amounts of leftover money on it, which the food bank can convert into money to buy food. Another way to donate is while out grocery shopping. The food bank’s donation barrels can be found at most grocery stores, and shoppers are encouraged to buy an extra canned item that they can drop in the bin on their way out.
“Access to healthy food is a basic human right,” said Alfest, “So, rather than buying a latte today, buy a can of food and donate it.”
“It’s so easy to take action,” said Everitt. “Everything has a ripple effect. You feed one person, and that person can feed the next.”
The food bank’s Advocacy Open House will be held on Thursday, September 8 from 5:30 pm to 7:30 pm at the Alameda County Community Food Bank in Oakland. For more details or to RSVP, you can contact Cat Burton at phone number (510) 635-3663 ext. 307 or firstname.lastname@example.org. If you are interested in participating in Hunger Action Month, or would like to volunteer with, or donate to the Alameda County Community Food Bank, you can visit them at: www.accfb.org. You can also follow them on Twitter: @ACCFB. You can mail in your “tiny tickets” to: Alameda County Community Food Bank, Development Department – Tiny Tickets, PO Box 2599, Oakland, CA 94614
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