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Reducing Food Insecurity In San Diego And Imperial County


How many families in San Diego County go to bed hungry every night? We'll discuss the latest stats on hunger in the county, and talk about what Feeding America San Diego is doing to reduce the meal gap in our community. Plus, learn about the unique challenge of reducing hunger in the Imperial County.

How many families in San Diego County go to bed hungry every night? We'll discuss the latest stats on hunger in the county, and talk about what Feeding America San Diego is doing to reduce the meal gap in our community. Plus, learn about the unique challenge of reducing hunger in the Imperial County.


Jennifer Gilmore, Executive Director of Feeding America San Diego

Sara Griffen, Executive Director of the Imperial Valley Food Bank

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This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

CAVANAUGH: During the height of the recession when many San Diegans were losing jobs, food banks reported a great surge in demand. And we followed those stories here on These Days. We're checking back in on the, of food resources in San Diego in the height of a remarkable study released recently called map the meal gap. The organization feeding America commissioned the report to find out how many people face hunger in our community and to shed light on the number of meals needed to feed San Diego's hungry. I'd like to introduce my guest, Jennifer Gillmore is executive director of feeding America San Diego. Jennifer, good morning.

GILLMORE: Good morning. Thanks for having me.

CAVANAUGH: Now I'd like to invite our listeners to join the conversation. Do you think San Diego is meeting the needs of people who can't afford food for their families? How do you think we could do better? Give us a call with your questions and comments. Our number is 1-888-895-5727. Well, Jennifer, who did the report find? How many San Diegans live in hunger each year?

GILLMORE: Well, what we found was absolutely staring, are the map, the meals gap study, found that approximately 443000 San Diegans are facing food insecurity each year. And that we need a staggering 43-million meals to be distributed throughout the county to address that need.

CAVANAUGH: Now, what does it -- how do you define in the study, living in hunger?

GILLMORE: Well, you know, it's a -- food insecurity, it's a touchy subject. And it doesn't mean somebody who's wondering what they're gonna have for dinner. I feel a hunger pain. Food insecurity is chronic hunger. It typically faces families near the end of the month when money gets tight, rent is due, and you suddenly are making choices between paying your rent, filling up your gas tank, or feeding your family.

CAVANAUGH: That's the kind of, that people who will get through let's say the last week with a menu of top ramen.

GILLMORE: A menu of top ramen, thinning the milk so it goes a little further for your kids, yeah, exactly that.

CAVANAUGH: Now, how did this study arrive at that number? 73 million meals missing in San Diego each year.

GILLMORE: Well, a lot of it -- there's a huge statistical equation, what it distilled down to is we compared the average meal cost to the number of food insecure, we fed in unemployment rate, and the whole study was funded through the Howard G. Buffet foundation and the Neal son radiance company came in and did some work as well. So there's a lot of information on our website about the -- how the statistical soundness of the study, but really the results just hit it home for us in terms of the amount of need.

CAVANAUGH: I want to ask you a lot bit more about how those statistics were compiled. But I want to go to a second guest on the phone with us now. Sarah Griffin is executive director of the Imperial Valley food bank. And she's here to talk to us about the -- what the study found about food insecurity in Imperial County. Sarah, good morning.

GRIFFIN: Good morning, Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: So what did the study reveal about the meal gap in im52erial valley?

GRIFFIN: Well, unfortunately, it wasn't surprising. The percentage of people in Imperial County with food insecurity is 31.4†percent. And the highest of any county in the country. I'm sorry, in California.

CAVANAUGH: The highest of any county in California. Why is that, Sarah?

GRIFFIN: Well, our unemployment rate has been hovering at the 28†percent mark for probably the last three years, since the real meat of the recession hit. So those numbers in addition to the unemployed farm workers that we have in the valley have really contributed in a very quick three years to us tripling the amount of people we serve at the food bank.

CAVANAUGH: Right. So that's why I'd misdemeanor it didn't come as a surprise to you as executive director of the Imperial Valley food bank. What kind of demand have you been having? How have you seen that go up in receipt years?

GRIFFIN: In January of 2008, the Imperial Valley food bank was serving approximately 7000 people per month. In January of this month, we were serving over 21000. So when I say it's three times the number in thee years, it's pretty accurate. And we do it on a very minimal staff. We weren't really prepared for it. And it's a real challenge for us.

CAVANAUGH: Now, are people -- are there people who need help from imperial valley food bank who can't be served? Who can't get it because you just don't have enough?

GRIFFIN: Today, we are able to serve all those that we know of. However, the statistics show that there's still probably about 8 to 10†percent of the county that we're not reaching. So we have a big challenge ahead of us.

CAVANAUGH: And what are the challenges that you do face in reaching that population?

GRIFFIN: Knowledge, just awareness, communication is one. But besides the actual food we serve at the food bank, the other element involved is the cal fresh program, the food stamp program.


GRIFFIN: And we have about 60†percent participation in that. That additional 40†percent participation would certainly help all those people in need. And we are really hoping for support of AB six in the state legislature that would help simplify the food bank process. And we hope that it will insure and help an awful lot of food to more people.

CAVANAUGH: I know you have to go, Sarah. My last question to you is what are you gonna do with the statistics that you've gotten from this study?

GRIFFIN: Well, our county is small, but mighty. And we are taking this opportunity -- actually next month, we're celebrating our 20th anniversary. And we're going to take an opportunity to make our county aware of exactly the needs of the food population in Imperial County, and hope that public awareness and continued efforts in that will assist as well as advocating with our state and our national legislatures to enact some healthy legislation that would help us continue to serve this population.

CAVANAUGH: Sarah, thank you.

GRIFFIN: You're very welcome, Maureen. Thank you.

CAVANAUGH: That was Sarah Griffin, executive director of the Imperial Valley food basic. We are talking about a new study commissioned by [CHECK AUDIO] guest in studio is Jennifer Gillmore. These executive director of feeding America San Diego. And we're taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727 if you have something you'd want to comment or you have a question about, hunger in San Diego. Let's go to the phones. Melanie is calling from Lemon Grove. Good morning, Melanie, and welcome to These Days.

NEW SPEAKER: -- very about that. My suggestion would be to teach people to learn how to cook again. Simple basics could help so much. There are so many people who do not know how to make simple rice and beans. And it could be anything -- it's so much better for them to eat than prepared food that they're buying at the super market. If you look at what people are buying in their baskets, it's incredible. I think we would serve our people better if we could give them a crock pot and give them actual cooking lessons and what to do with staples. And our money could go farther, and they would be healthier.

CAVANAUGH: Melanie, let me get a reaction to that. And thank you for the call. What about what Melanie has said, you know, instead of distributing processed foods, has feeding America thought about doing something along those lines?

GILLMORE: Yeah, more than thought about it. Personally and as an organization, we believe that the opposite of hungry isn't full. The opposite of hungry is healthy. And we're dealing with populations that are facing chronic illnesses, obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and there's a responsibility with food banks to distribute healthy food to these populations, otherwise you are burdening them with -- you're not helping the situation. And you're burdening society with long-term medical costs. So we're much more equipped to absorb some of the costs to bring in fresh fruits and vegetables of as an organization, 75†percent of what we distribute is considered nutritious. We've moved away from processed foods to more fruits and vegetables. And in fact this year we expect that 40 percent of all the food we distribute will be fresh fruits and vegetables. So she's spot on with that.

CAVANAUGH: Jennifer, I'm wondering, when you got the statistics back from this study map, the meal gap, what was your reaction?

GILLMORE: Well, like Sarah, we knew it was bad out there. We've seen the lines growing longer and longer, we've seen more military families, more moms in the lines, people are showing up earlier. It used to be we'd have a distribution and it would start about 9:00†o'clock, people would come at 830. People are now getting to the distribution site at 3†o'clock in the morning so they don't lose their spot. So we've known that it's been tough out there for some time. What this study brought home to me and what really punched me in the gut was the number of families who were working who are now turning to food pantries and soup kitchens for assistance. And in fact, 40†percent of all of the food insecure folks, and there's about 16 percent of the population is food insecure, 40†percent of those folks are actually earning more than 40000 a year. And they're struggling. And these are military families, these are folks who are going to food pantries, dropping their kids off to school so they can get to work on time. And that's something new. That's something we haven't seen before.

CAVANAUGH: What ask that tell us about the federal good guidelines for when people are eligible for food assistance or the state guidelines about when people are eligible for food assistance? Apparently from what you're saying, they haven't kept up with the reality of living in California.

GILLMORE: Well, and I'm glad you asked that. It's something that we grapple with a lot. In San Diego County, we are -- a family is considered to live in poverty if they earn less than -- a family of four, for instance, is considered to live in poverty if they earn less than 22000 a year. Now, a family in Alabama or South Dakota is also considered to be poverty if they earn less than 22,000 a year. We know that the cost of living is a whole lot more here in San Diego. What happens as a result of that, is the federal nutrition programs are able to serve families who earn a hundred and 85†percent above the federal poverty level. That's a $40,000 amount for a family of four. If you earn more than that, then you can't get a USDA or federal food. You can't qualify for food stamps, and so the only response you're really -- the only place you have to turn are these emergency food pantries who are distributing donated product.

CAVANAUGH: I'm speaking with Jennifer Gillmore. She's executive director of feeding America, San Diego. We're talking about a new study called map the meal gap, that found out that there are 73 million meals missing each other in San Diego County. And we're taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. Mary is calling us from Spring Valley. Good morning, Mary, and welcome to These Days.

NEW SPEAKER: Good morning. I enjoy your program. I enjoy your station. I listen every day. I don't listen to anything else anymore.

CAVANAUGH: Oh, thank you.

NEW SPEAKER: So I decided to call in because I'm a seen citizen, I get less than $900 a month, that is to pay for everything. We're talking gas, food, rent, everything. And the thing that kind of annoys me, though, is I've heard that there are other states when you're on SSI that you're allowed to get food stamps. Not in the State of California. I've already checked into food stamps, I've checked into that California fresh, whatever that's called that the one woman was talking about earlier.


NEW SPEAKER: And we're not able to take them. I've depended on food banks at a couple of churches. I'm very lucky to be affiliated with new seasons church which is in Spring Valley. Incredible church that has food for people that don't have it. Then they distribute food in the area once a month on the third Tuesday of the month. And then there's another church, a Lutheran church, that's probably five miles within my district, that distributes food twice a month on the first Friday and the last Friday of the month. So I've had to depend on those, which is really important. But I just thought that maybe if I got the word out that I might get some feedback on whether that's accurate or not, whether the information I was given about other states allowing food stamps for people that have SSI or maybe that's just a fallacy that I have. I don't know.

CAVANAUGH: Are, let me direct that to my guest, and thank you very much for the call, Mary. What about that? The eligibility for food stamps if you're on SSI?

GILLMORE: Well, it's a tricky. And within San Diego county, it's particularly tricky. One of the things that feeding America San Diego has done this year is we've launched our feeding excellence program. We recognize that there's a real importance to get people out of food lines and help them become self sustainable. And food stamps are a terrific way to do that. Most people who receive food stamps do so temporarily, just till they're back on their feet. We have a team of two full time employees and five interns who are out in the field daily prescreening people for food stamps. Anyone who has questions about whether or not they qualify or would like to get some more information about whether they're eligible for food stamps, they can call feeding America San Diego. The other terrific resource is 211. 211 is equipped to actually fill out an application for somebody over the phone and submit it to the cont county, which saves them a lot of time. So we encourage people to, each case there's so many nuances, that it's important for them to go straight to the experts so that they get their questions answered accurately.

CAVANAUGH: Ask you give us an idea about why it's so complicated?

GILLMORE: Well, we've made a lot of progress. We can -- we've had, and fortunately the county board of supervisors has been very receptive to how we can improve the enrollment rate. I think that's a perception that food stamps is a hand out, and we're reluctant, you know? This is the United States of America. And a lot of people are reluctant to have help, there's some myths surrounding food bank, and then there's some barriers to receiving services such as food stamps. You know, or fingerprinting. Some people believe that their home is gonna be searched. Some people believe that they're gonna be deported if they try and get their children some benefits. So there's amount of myths surrounding them. Slowly but surely, we're making progress through those. The important thing is for people to just make the call and to inquire because there are a lot of benefits, about a hundred and $4†million each year, that aren't making it into this county that could be, that would sure help a lot of people in need.

CAVANAUGH: Let's take another call. Don is on the line from Carlsbad, good morning, don, and welcome to These Days.

NEW SPEAKER: Good morning. I heard the word sustainability. And I'm wondering what kind of focus if any there has been on community gardens. I did hear the call-ins from the person in Imperial Valley. Those are farm workers that apparently having trouble making ends meet. They know how to grow food. How about allocating some land so they can grown their own, both in imperial and San Diego?

CAVANAUGH: Well, we don't have the imperial valley executive director of the food bank on the line anymore. But let me direct the question to Jennifer. Do you have -- do you pair up with any of the community gardens or the growers around here?

GILLMORE: There are some fantastic community gardens. And we completely support that. One of the issues we grapple with is when people come to us, they need food today. The covers are bare, the children are crying, there's nothing in the refrigerator. To takes a while for gardening to kick in bump it's an investment that's worth making now. There's some wonderful -- the new root it is garden. We have a woman in Poway who has generously offered the noose of her land. Now, this takes resources, this takes time, it takes an investment. It takes a whole cadre of volunteers to make sure that ground is tended. The other thing is what food banks are doing across the country is we've got tons of fresh fruits that are going to waste in our own backyard. So we've started programs, gleaning programs to collect the fruits from the fruit trees in people's own back yard and distribute them to the pantries. It's healthy, it's free, it's accessible, and it's doing a service to a lot of our neighbors of so that's another exciting program that's taking place.

CAVANAUGH: Do you have enough people to do that?

GILLMORE: Oh, Maureen, we need volunteers. We have -- we rely as an organization on 8000 volunteers annually, that's just within our distribution center. Out in the community, there are -- we work with a hundred and 89 profit organize, 22 schools and all of them need volunteers. This is a labor of love. So if people have an our or two hours to come and help us, we can put them to work for sure. The need is really, really critical, and those volunteers help us, they contribute 40†percent of all of the labor that takes place in our distribution center. And they save us a lot of money every year, which means more food for San Diego County.

CAVANAUGH: David's on the line form el Cajon. Good morning, David, welcome to These Days.

NEW SPEAKER: Good morning. The national service act of 1990 had specific legislation that was to -- are you there?


NEW SPEAKER: Had specific legislation covering the ability of volunteers to go onto private property. And that's something I would like to encourage the organizations to figure how agencies and church groups and volunteers could be protected. The other is what I've discovered about gleaning is that every tree blossoms generally, and the fruit is ready at a specific time a year. There should be a database that lists of people, neighborhoods, individuals who have trees and that database is looked at to say this is call should be made to that particular person to say our crew's gonna be there to glean. I have seen all over mount helix, El Cajon valley, Spring Valley, tree after tree after tree with beautiful oranges that are falling on the ground.

CAVANAUGH: David, thank you for the call. I appreciate it. And it's a wonderful idea. I want to be able to squeeze in a call from Jennifer in City Heights. Good morning, Jennifer, welcome to These Days.

NEW SPEAKER: Hi, thanks for having me on the air, Jennifer. This is Jennifer from the San Diego hunger coalition. I'm really glad you're talking about this, I just wanted to also put in a couple other options for people if they want to find out if they might qualify for the cal fresh program. They can go to benefits, that's the county's on line application. There's a lot of people who they make too much money and they're not gonna qualify for benefits, but there's amount of people in our county that do qualify. So they can go to benefits They can also call 211 and get a referral to one of our 45 outreach partners throughout the county that can help them with the process. And 211 can also do the process with them over the phone. So there's a lot of options for people to find out if they might be eligible.

CAVANAUGH: Jennifer, thank you for the call. I appreciate it. Now, Jennifer Gillmore, I know that feeding America San Diego has had some good news lately. You've broken ground on a new cold storage unit. What does that mean for your ability to service the hungry population in San Diego?

GILLMORE: Well, I've gotta tell you, we've been -- it's been four years we've been waiting for cold storage. And we're gonna have 56000†cubic feet of cold storage space. And so what that means from our -- what makes us super excited about that, is that we're gonna bring in more food. But the food you get to bring in that's perishable is usually the most healthy. It's fresh fruits and vegetables, it's more lean meats, dairy, eggs, and all of that is super exciting to us.

CAVANAUGH: It's not just a box of prepared macaroni, let's say.

GILLMORE: No, we don't want to distribute macaroni, we want cheese and whole wheat noodles, and to distribute that. We truly believe that opposite of hungry isn't full, it's healthy. Fresh fruits and vegetables are some of the most appreciated products we distribute to folks. And we love to see kids -- we have a kids' program, and they've receiving bok choy and egg plants along with apples and plums and nectarines, and they're becoming familiar with all of those products and fruits and vegetables, and hopefully changing the eating habits that haft a lifetime.

CAVANAUGH: Well, I tell you, I think that a number of people who listen to this show might have gotten excited about what you're doing, so if they would like to contact you and perhaps volunteer some of thirds requirement time, how can they do it.

GILLMORE: On, I hope they do. They can visit our website at feeding America dot, or they can call us at 858-452-FOOD.

CAVANAUGH: I have been speaking with Jennifer Gillmore, executive director of feeding America San Diego. Thank you so much, Jennifer.

GILLMORE: Oh, thank you, it's been my pleasure.

CAVANAUGH: Just ahead, students at SDSU are about to embark on an extraordinary field trip to some of California's toughest prisons. That's as These Days continues here on KPBS.

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