Alameda County Food Bank encourages political action during Hunger Action Month
on September 18, 2019
On a recent Friday afternoon at the Loaves & Fishes Food Ministry in Oakland, around 20 people inside the church parking lot were bustling around with paper bags, boxes and crates, and then proceeding through a tented line, filling their bags with whole cabbages, carrots, containers of fruit, packaged sesame noodle salads and loaves of bread to take home.
Shaaron Green-Peace, who founded the organization and runs the event, was busy overseeing the operation at the end of the line and chatting with regulars. She says that she fed 3,300 people in August. “They don’t have to be homeless—they want food,” she said. “The majority come because they’re hungry. A lot of times, people don’t want to come here.”
Every Monday and Friday from 1 to 5 p.m., more than a dozen of the ministry’s bins of fresh fruits and vegetables, prepared meals, dairy and sometimes fresh meat are filled by the Alameda County Food Community Food Bank and private donors. This church is one of about 23 sites in Oakland where food from the bank is distributed, and this month is particularly important to them.
Every September, the Alameda County Community Food Bank joins a network of 200 food banks nationwide for Hunger Action Month to promote volunteering, social media activity and advocacy to raise awareness about food insecurity, a term food bank staffers, activists and the government organizations use to mean that people lack access to enough safe, nutritious food to be healthy.
The campaign encourages political actions like registering to vote and contacting representatives to pass the Raise the Wage Act of 2019, strengthen the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which is sometimes referred to as food stamps, and restore Social Security Income for seniors and people with disabilities, which was cut in California during the Great Recession. The food bank is also encouraging people to volunteer sorting food in their warehouse and answering phones for their hunger helpline, which connects people to a source for groceries or a hot meal the day they call.
“We know ending hunger is possible, but we can’t do it alone,” Michael Altfest, director of community engagement and marketing for the food bank, wrote in an email. “Legislation to strengthen anti-hunger and anti-poverty programs is key to that.”
The food bank is using September to urge people to take political action, instead of solely donating food. “Food Banks like ours are becoming far more sophisticated in our approach,” Altfest said in an email. “The model of a Food Bank only distributing emergency food is becoming a thing of the past.”
Food bank staffers released a 2019 policy agenda which details their aims. This year, some of them are to encourage the state to fund the CalFood Program, which enables food banks to meet emergency needs, and for legislators to pass Assembly Bill 842, which would require all public preschool and child care sites to provide at least one nutritious free or low-cost meal per day, and which was enrolled on September 16. The organization releases “action alerts” online about twice a month to help county residents contact their elected officials about state and federal legislation, and encourages people to register and pre-register to vote if they’re under 18, as well as work the polls.
In Alameda County, 40 percent of residents are food insecure, according to a report by California Food Policy Advocates. The Alameda County food bank serves 1 in 5 residents, and two thirds of people receiving food are children and seniors.
Melissa Cannon, a senior advocate at California Food Policy Advocates in Oakland, says that hunger is common among people who earn low wages, or have very high costs of living. “Individuals who have experienced generations of poverty, maybe tied to discrimination, racial bias—these are individuals who are more likely to be impacted by hunger, and more likely to be impacted and living in poverty,” she says. “In Oakland, that is true. And it’s true not just in Oakland, but in the U.S.”
Altfest wrote by email that it’s simply becoming harder and harder to get by in Oakland, and that hunger can affect anyone who is low or moderate-income, seniors living on a fixed income and families with children they need to support. “Oakland and Alameda County face particularly unique struggles related to the cost of living,” Altfest wrote. “People who are food insecure here are far less likely, for instance, to qualify for benefits like CalFresh (SNAP) because the cost of living is so high, but benefits are based on the federal poverty level.”
The average household income in Oakland is $63,251 according to 2018 census data. The federal poverty level for a family of 5, based on 2018 census data, is $29,420, according to the Department of Health and Human Services. This means that people in Oakland might make more than the federal poverty limit, but because they’re paying more for rent and food, they struggle to make ends meet.
At the Loaves & Fishes Food Ministry, Green-Peace said that the people who come to get food don’t fit one particular profile, but that as rent and the price of childcare continue to rise in Oakland, working class people are having difficulty paying for food. “They have to decide between rent or eating,” she said.
To receive food, anyone can walk up to a tented area in the parking lot and get a certain amount of each item. Volunteers speak with people receiving food to determine if they might need more for their particular situation. For example, people who are currently homeless might take more fruit and prepared meals and no vegetables or meat if they don’t have access to a kitchen.
Green-Peace said that some people get more food because people pick it up on the behalf of those who are homebound, and also some people distribute food to homebound people in their building.
George Nesbitt, a man in his fifties who was waiting for his turn at a vegetable bin, says that he comes to get food at Loaves & Fishes Food Ministry because the amount of food he can get using food stamps only lasts him about a week. “I’m hungry,” Nesbitt said. “I want to eat. Food stamps don’t last you for a month.”
Mae Jones, who was sitting in a chair at the end of the tented line with Green-Peace and several other people, said that she prefers Loaves & Fishes Food Ministry to other food distributors because the food is fresher, and there are more options.
“I love seeing people get food,” said Green-Peace. “So many people in Oakland and San Francisco need food.”
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