Friday, November 20, 2009
49 million Americans live without access to adequate food, according to a recent Department of Agriculture report. What's the situation like for people here in San Diego? And, what can be done to reduce the number of people who deal with "food insecurity" in our county?
GLORIA PENNER (Host): I’m Gloria Penner. I’m joined by the editors at the roundtable These Days in San Diego. Today, we’ll look into growing hunger in San Diego, high prices and better sales in the housing market, and the San Diego City Council’s refusal to offer more cuts despite the demands of the deficit and the requests of the mayor. The editors with me today are JW August, managing editor of KGTV 10News. JW, I’m glad you could be with us again today.
JW AUGUST (Managing Editor, KGTV 10News): Top o’ the morning to you, Gloria.
PENNER: Top of the morning to you. Ricky Young, government editor for the San Diego Union-Tribune. And welcome back to you, Ricky.
RICKY YOUNG (Government Editor, San Diego Union-Tribune): Good morning, Gloria. It’s nice to be back.
PENNER: Good morning. Andrew Donohue, the editor of VoiceofSanDiego.com (sic). How are you, Andrew?
ANDREW DONOHUE (Editor, VoiceofSanDiego.org): I’m wonderful. It’s always good to see you, Gloria.
PENNER: Thank you, Andrew. Our number here, if you would like to get in touch with us this morning on these three rather important topics are – is 1-888-895-5727, that’s 895-KPBS. Well, I’m going to give you a little personal information. I just returned from a few days in New York City where there is no hiding poverty in the Big Apple. The slums are a short walk from upscale 5th Avenue, the subways shuttle the wealthy and the destitute side by side. In San Diego, poverty is less visible but it is here by the thousands and its evil twin is hunger. So, JW, why is the hunger problem growing in San Diego?
AUGUST: A number of factors, the recession, the unemployed, the underemployed, the price of real estate, all of these factors, the cost of living, healthcare, all of that is driving this very scary bump in the number of people that are, I believe the term is, low – on low – have low food security.
PENNER: Low food security. But, you know, we’ve had recessions and downturns before. Why is it worse now?
AUGUST: I think it’s the combination, it’s the perfect storm. There’s a lot of different elements combining to make this a very scary time for a lot of people. I bet a lot of people don’t know there’s something like 323,000 people in the county who live at or below the poverty level. And the hunger, obviously, it attracts poverty. You know, the hunger, you could – I’m guessing we have over 323,000 people in the county that are – do not get enough food.
PENNER: But to continue to kind of define the program, Andrew, even for those with incomes above the poverty level that JW was talking about, we hear that hunger is present, that food insecurity is there. Why is affording food such a problem here?
DONOHUE: Well, I, you know, there’s a fundamental problem of actually being poor in San Diego, it is actually, in a lot of respects, worse than being poor anywhere else. If you look at the safety net that our society’s built for, you know, those in poverty and those struggling, one of the key programs that we have from the federal government is the food stamp program. In San Diego, we are, by far, the worst in providing the food stamps to those eligible. We enroll something like 35% of the people that are eligible for that. And most other places are 90, 92%. The second worst county in all of America is 43 in Denver and Houston, so we have a whole infrastructure here that’s set up to seemingly deter people that are supposed to be getting this help from actually getting it and in the long run that hurts our economy, too.
PENNER: What do you mean – what do you mean by that? There’s an infrastructure set up to keep people from getting that help?
DONOHUE: There’s a real strong emphasis here in San Diego County at the county government level of actually investing a lot more in fraud prevention and investigation into people applying for these benefits than there is actually in – into outreach and education and making sure that the people that are supposed to be getting these benefits are.
PENNER: Okay, so Ricky, before I turn to you, let me turn to our listeners and ask them, first of all, are you aware of the extent of food insecurity or hunger in San Diego? And, secondly, what do you think about this issue that Andrew brought up that our county government really is set up to provide roadblocks and obstacles to people who need food stamps rather than help. Our number again, 1-888-895-5727, 895-KPBS. All right, Ricky, you’re a government – the government editor, how serious do you think our local leaders are about addressing this issue?
YOUNG: Well, Andrew brought up this issue with the county having a fairly low percentage of folks enrolled in food stamps of those who are eligible for it. They have made some progress on this. There’s been a 67% increase in enrollment in the past five years. There’s about 150,000 people on. It was, you know, something like 90% -- or, excuse me, 90,000 five years ago. In part because of some coverage by Jeff McDonald of our paper, you know, there’s been a lot of awareness raised on this issue and they are working on it. They’ve got a three-year plan to continue to increase enrollment because, as Andrew mentioned, the – you know, out of about 24 cities in a national survey on this, our enrollment is the smallest percentage, in part because of this fraud prevention…
DONOHUE: Yeah, and I should say they were at…
DONOHUE: …they’re still and they were the lowest before but they did go up in the latest study from 29% to 35%, so there’s definite progress there. It’s just the fact that even after a lot of progress we’re still last.
PENNER: How many years are you talking about, Andrew, that there’s been an attempt to rectify the situation?
DONOHUE: You know, Tony – or, Ricky might know better than me but I believe it’s just in the last year or two that this…
PENNER: That’s it.
DONOHUE: …program’s been going in.
PENNER: Okay, but you have seen some improvement. That’s a good sign.
DONOHUE: It’s – Exactly. I mean, you’re improved to still be in last place.
PENNER: All right. Let’s hear from Britta in Mission Hills. Britta, you are on with the editors. What would you like to say to them?
BRITTA (Caller, Mission Hills): Yeah, thanks for taking my call.
BRITTA: My issue is a little bit different. It does have to do with your topic, however, I don’t see it addressed. And I am a survivor of World War II from Germany. I was a child during that time. And I remember, you know, being not always full but we were always healthy. And I think one of the reasons that is not being addressed is that people nowadays don’t know how to cook healthy, wholesome and very cheap dinners like lentils and potato soups and things like that that last for several days that kids can fill up on and that are wholesome and healthy instead of going for takeouts, which is what most people do because they, I think, have learned the art of cooking wholesome but inexpensive meals and maybe there should be some classes to teach people how to feed themselves and their children.
PENNER: Good point. Very good point. Thank you, Britta. We appreciate that. JW, wants to respond to you.
AUGUST: And she’s right on. I think it’s ironic when we – The FDA came out with this report about the numbers of the millions of people that are hungry that at the same time we’re wrestling with obesity in our schools. It’s an interesting dynamic. It speaks to the different classes in the country and what’s going on.
YOUNG: Yeah, the same day a recent USDA report came out about hunger or food insecurity in America, there was a report out of Emory University projecting that 43% of us will be obese by 2018. So I think they are related where the cheapest foods are the ones that are the worst for you. Part of the measure of this food insecurity, which is kind of an interesting term, was asking people, you know, not just, you know, do you not have enough money for food but things like, do you not have enough money to have balanced meals? Whatever that is. But…
DONOHUE: What does food insecurity actually mean? Is that just sort of…
AUGUST: Going to bed hungry.
DONOHUE: Is that…
AUGUST: You’re not sure…
DONOHUE: So that’s…
AUGUST: …where your next meal’s coming from.
PENNER: That – yeah.
DONOHUE: So that – that’s hunger.
PENNER: That is…
DONOHUE: Can we just call it hunger then?
PENNER: I’m willing to.
AUGUST: No, it’s not appropriate. Not appropriate.
AUGUST: We’ve got to be PC.
PENNER: JW – JW, I know you don’t mean that. But I’m wondering how generous are San Diego residents, when it comes to providing food for people, we are constantly hearing about food drives and there’s the food bank. Is San Diego a generous community when it comes to doing this kind of thing? Does anyone know at this table?
AUGUST: Well, we have four pretty big food banks. You know, they – millions and millions of pounds of food they get but, you know, the problem I have is we’re generous around the holidays, like everybody else. Everybody gets a free Thanksgiving dinner at Golden Hall but then what happens on January the fifth, that sort of thing. I don’t always think it’s top of mind, though I know there’s very – there’s a lot of people very active in this community trying to fight this issue.
PENNER: Okay, let’s hear now from Julie in Encinitas. Julie, you’re on with the editors.
JULIE (Caller, Encinitas): Hi. I wanted to bring some attention to something that I’ve just been made of aware of myself recently. I have a coworker who makes somewhere around $12.00 a hour and has been abandoned by her husband essentially and has children she’s taking care of. And even at the $12.00 an hour, she’s not – she’s having a hard time surviving and keeping a roof over her head. It’s just so expensive to live here. This woman works 40 hours a week and doesn’t even know from month to month if she’s going to be able to keep the roof over her head.
PENNER: Well, I…
JULIE: And she’s a hardworking person.
PENNER: I’m working it out in my head, say that the normal work is 2,000 hours a year so that’s $24,000 a year, and $24,000 is not – doesn’t even hit the poverty level for a family with two children. And that brings us to a very good point. Julie, I’m glad you brought it up because I was going to a little bit later. What kind of businesses and jobs are needed in San Diego to improve this situation? Because $12.00 an hour is a pretty common salary for service workers. Is it not, Andrew?
DONOHUE: That is. I think you’re touching on a really important part of it.
PENNER: I think so, too.
DONOHUE: You know, we tend to have a – We have what’s known as a dumbbell economy here in San Diego. We have a lot of jobs on the higher end and we have a lot of jobs on the lower end but we’re not very strong in middle class jobs, the sort of jobs that can provide for the family that we’re talking about, that can provide the healthcare and the, quote, unquote, food security that we’re looking for. I think one thing is there’s a heavy emphasis on even in our local governments on making sure that tourism continues to grow and that’s a very important part, and it’s not that we shouldn’t be growing that but tourism tends to provide jobs, service jobs on the lower end of the economy whereas if you look at something like the tech economy and, you know, science and technology that this region is also well known for, those are the sort of jobs that are providing, you know, the middle class incomes that I think a region needs for its stability, and those are the ones that we really should be looking for right now.
PENNER: And JW?
AUGUST: Well, I just wanted to bring to your attention that before this FDA report came out, a report the month before by Feeding America—they used to be called Second Harvest. They’re the biggest, you know, hunger relief agency in the United States. They have a place here in San Diego and they surveyed San Diego and compared it to the rest of the country and I just got to look at this and read it to you. In the summer of 2008, they served 46,000 people. In the summer of this year they served 109,000 people.
PENNER: Oh, my.
AUGUST: That’s up 138,000. Nationally, it’s jumped 30%, San Diego 138%. That’s kind of…
PENNER: So what are…
AUGUST: …mind blowing.
PENNER: All right, arrive at a conclusion for us based on that.
AUGUST: I think it’s – I think that our community’s feeling it harder than a lot of other parts of the United States.
AUGUST: The cost of housing, one thing.
DONOHUE: Well, plus our economy was so tied to real estate. I mean, that’s all throughout California as well. Look at how many of the jobs were actually tied to the whole housing boom from the people that were building the houses to all the mortgage brokers to all the people that were working in, you know, in sales and real estate and realtors. I mean, we have an economy that is incredibly based in real estate so it would go hand in hand with when you have a boom, you know, our local economy’s going to be doing probably even better than anybody else’s.
DONOHUE: And when you have a bust, we’re going to just get nailed.
PENNER: Okay, Ricky, last comment before we go into our break.
YOUNG: I will say this recent USDA study didn’t have any numbers for San Diego County specifically but California was a little better off. You know, it was sort of in the middle of the pack with 12% food insecurity compared to like 17% in Mississippi, 16% in Texas, so, you know, at least the state as a whole is not as bad off as some other places.
PENNER: Okay, well, then that’s the only bright note we’ve had in this conversation so far. We’re going to come back, we’re going to talk much more about hunger in San Diego, about your experiences and what maybe can be done about it. So stick with us. And this is the Editors Roundtable. I’m Gloria Penner.
PENNER: And welcome back to the Editors Roundtable. I’m Gloria Penner, at the table today with Ricky Young from the San Diego Union-Tribune, Andrew Donohue from VoiceofSanDiego.org, and we also have JW August from KGTV 10News. We’re talking about hunger in San Diego. The numbers are really boggling. I mean, it’s hard to believe that in our beautiful community so many thousands of people, thousands of people, are actually going hungry. And we’re talking about their experiences and also what can be done about it and what’s at the root cause. So let’s start right out with a phone call. Again, our number is 1-888-895-5727, 895-KPBS. Let’s start with Christine in downtown. Christine, you’re on with the editors. Welcome.
CHRISTINE (Caller, Downtown San Diego): Hi, good morning. Thank you for taking my call.
CHRISTINE: I just wanted to comment and give you my experience. I’m currently actually going through the food stamp process. It’s been very tedious, a lot of red tape. I submitted my application at the beginning of October, didn’t receive a letter until four weeks later, and I’ve had just an entire page of things I had to bring in to an appointment which unfortunately I couldn’t make because I had to work that day. I’m the only income bringer for my household. My husband was laid off. We have three young children. You’re told to call a voice mail to reschedule. I did so, no return call, and you call back again and the voice mail has just been completely full for the past two weeks. I can’t get through to anybody. I tried to call the call center hotline they give people to call and you have to wait 20 or 30 minutes and it’s just very disheartening. I’m just trying to do my best for myself and my children and this whole process, it’s just – it’s mind boggling and it’s so many hoops to jump through.
PENNER: Christine, thank you so much. I know our producer is taking your number so maybe we can get some help for you. But what does this say to us about the way our county government is handling this relative emergency? I mean, there are so many emergencies. We hear about the swine flu emergency, we hear about multiple emergencies, and this is definitely categorized as one. What does it say, Andrew?
DONOHUE: Well, I think even if you were to talk to the supervisors that run the county government, I mean, they very – I think very openly admit that this isn’t a huge priority. Now they have put resources into making it better but they are very fiscally and, in many cases, socially conservative and this is just not a top priority at the county. I mean, it’s a county that’s really focused on, you know, public safety and on law enforcement but, you know, social services are just not a high priority. And I wanted to just put out a call for Christine to get in touch with me. This is Andrew Donohue from Voice of San Diego. We’d love to talk to you for a story.
PENNER: I’m just wondering if this is a euphemism, Andrew, that you’re using, this idea of fiscally and socially conservative. Is that a euphemism for sweeping a problem under the table and hoping it’s going to go away?
DONOHUE: No, you know, there’s – I’m not saying that there’s anything necessarily wrong with that. People in this region just have to know that that’s a decision that their elected officials have made on their behalf. And so that is what the priority of our elected officials at the county supervisor level are making, and these are some of the consequences.
PENNER: Okay, Ricky.
YOUNG: We hear these stories a lot and, you know, about the difficulties in getting food stamps. And as I mentioned earlier, the supervisors have this three year plan to improve things but I don’t remember that plan including adding, you know, case workers to help move these things along quicker. And, you know, I don’t know if we’ve seen a deficit figure for the county yet but if it’s anything like the city’s, you know, they’re not going to be adding staff, they’re going to be cutting it. Now, ironically, one thing that they do have as part of their plan is raising awareness of food stamps, you know, which is only going to exacerbate the problem when more people go to apply for them.
DONOHUE: They also have a very stringent anti-fraud system set up that they invest a lot of money in and that has been challenged in court…
YOUNG: There’s big problems.
DONOHUE: …you know, and the County has prevailed in court but there was very, very strong language used by dissenting judges to really critique that program.
PENNER: Is there a difference in your mind, Andrew, between being cautious and being paranoid.
DONOHUE: Yeah, I mean, there’s a – I think you have to find a fine line. You can’t create a program and spend all your resources in time in trying to make sure people can’t enter. Sure, there’s going to be fraud but I think you have to weigh what are the consequences of freezing out so many people that are actually supposed to be getting this program and that deserve it under the laws that we’ve established as a society versus catching a few scofflaws.
AUGUST: I – I – This may be a little far fetched, but I equate it to the Mexican justice system where people are guilty before – and they have to prove their innocence. I think that’s how the county processes this instead of saying, hey, what can we do to make this happen and, you know, we’ll pick off the bad ones. It’s just the flip. And my heart goes out to Christine. Christine, whoever your supervisor is where you live, you need to pick up the phone and demand to speak to the chief of staff of that supervisor.
PENNER: Oh, lots of luck.
AUGUST: Well, I mean, it depends on how persistent you are and clever. You can always get them. Or call JW over at Channel 10. I’ll find out who it is and I’ll get you his phone number.
PENNER: Call JW at Channel 10. Okay, I think that’s probably the best bet.
DONOHUE: I asked first.
PENNER: Ricky – Christine, you have a bunch of supporters here. Ricky, did you want to add to that or shall I go to another caller?
YOUNG: Well, I just would like to say just, you know, out of some kind of journalistic other side sort of concept here that you can’t necessarily underestimate the idea that the supervisors might be representing their constituencies. If people were calling and saying you should be giving out more food stamps, don’t stand in the way of food stamps, don’t investigate fraud for food stamps, that might well be what they do.
DONOHUE: No, that’s a great point. I mean, they are representing a constituency. I think it’ll be interesting to watch. I mean, these are all supervisors that came into office in the mid-nineties together when welfare reform was the – you know, it was…
DONOHUE: …the big issue of the day and so they’ve been, you know, running the county in that form. And this is, you know, or, has been, historically a more conservative county. What I think will be interesting to watch is those demographics are changing. This is becoming a little bit more of a Democratic county…
PENNER: And there’s an election coming up.
DONOHUE: …every day and it’s going to play an issue, I guarantee you, in the reelection bid of Ron Roberts in 2010. He’s a Republican…
PENNER: And Bill Horn. Not…
DONOHUE: …but especially in Roberts’ district in 2010. He’s a Republican who represents a very urban area and he’s going to have a challenge from at least Lori Saldana, who’s an Assemblywoman, if not Donna Frye. And this is an issue that will resonate a lot more in Roberts’ district than it would in any other district.
PENNER: Isn’t there also the chair of the San Diego School Board is also – Yeah, she’s…
DONOHUE: Yeah, Shelia – Shelia Jackson will be running.
PENNER: Okay. All right. Well, I’ll tell you what, let’s take just one more call and then I – we really need to switch topics although we could spend the whole hour on this because everybody has filled up our phone lines. Let’s hear from Ed in San Diego. Hi, Ed, you’re on with the editors. Could you make…
ED (Caller, San Diego): Hi, people…
PENNER: …make it brief, please?
ED: In addition – Hello?
PENNER: Yeah, Ed, I’m – we’re listening. I’m asking you to make it brief only because we’re running out of time.
ED: Oh, yes but this will be very brief. In addition to food stamps, there’s another important contribution to the problem with food right now and that is the Supplemental Security Income, which is the amount that is given by the state to bring people up to the poverty level, has been cut three times just this year since January.
PENNER: Yeah, and not only that but the cost of living that Social Security recipients normally get, they are not getting this year. So income is being squeezed on those people with fixed incomes. Ed, thank you very much. And with that, I usually go around once on the table to see if you have final comments but I think we’re going to move ahead.