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Number Of Families Living In Poverty, Hunger Rising In San Diego County


The number of people living in poverty in San Diego County is growing at a rate that's seven times faster than the national average. Hundreds of thousands of San Diego families are forced to decide between putting food on the table and paying rent or buying medicine for their children each month. We discuss what those in need can do to get social services and food.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. During the dark days of the 1930's Depression, there were often stories about families being forced to skip meals, or parents going hungry so their children could eat. Now we have a name for that kind of hardship, it's called food insecurity. New numbers released by the Department of Agriculture find that the amount of food insecurity in the U.S. has climbed to the highest rate recorded since the survey began in 1995, up to nearly one in seven American households. And people who work in food programs across America say they expect the number of families who are having trouble buying enough food will climb even higher this year. Joining us to talk about the issue of food insecurity and how people can get help here in San Diego are my guests. Murtaza Baxamusa, Director of Research and Policy at the Center on Policy Initiatives here in San Diego. Welcome, Murtaza.

MURTAZA BAXAMUSA (Director of Research and Policy, Center on Policy Initiatives): Good morning.

CAVANAUGH: Gary McDonald is president and CEO of Feeding America San Diego. Thank you for being here, Gary.

GARY MCDONALD (President and CEO, Feeding America San Diego): My pleasure. Thank you.

CAVANAUGH: And Bill York, Service Design Manager for 211 San Diego. Bill, welcome to These Days.

WILLIAM YORK (Service Design Manager, 211 San Diego): Thanks for having me.

CAVANAUGH: And we invite our listeners to join the conversation. Have you or members of your family been struggling with trying to keep enough food in the house? Do you volunteer at a food program in San Diego? Give us a call with your questions and your comments. Our number is 1-888-895-5727, that’s 1-888-895-KPBS. Murtaza, I explained it a little bit but I think probably you can do a better job of it. What does food insecurity actually mean?

BAXAMUSA: It is a euphemism for hunger essentially. The news is not good. In 2008, 49 million Americans lacked consistent access to food, which means that they either landed up with going to food stamps, food pantries, or completely went to bed hungry at night. This combination is an increase of 30 million people. We expect the numbers to get worse this year. 2008 was some time when unemployment was around 7%. Today, it’s double digits, so we expect the numbers to increase steeply but there’s no denying that there is a hunger problem in America.

CAVANAUGH: And also, doesn’t the term insecurity itself sort of mean that it’s perhaps people are just skirting the line of hunger but they really don’t know where – how they’re going to feed themselves next week, let’s say.

BAXAMUSA: Correct. It’s one of the basic self-sustaining – it’s a survival issue here. For especially Americans that have lost their jobs recently and they’re wondering – single moms, 36% of these people that are food insecure are single moms. They’re wondering how to put food on the table at night and feed their children. So this is a considerable amount of insecurity.

CAVANAUGH: And what are the numbers for San Diego County for food insecurity?

BAXAMUSA: The numbers from the U.S. Department of Agriculture cover California. It’s a historic high at over 12%. We know from historic reports that this – over the economic expansion, the numbers went down to 10% and then rose again to 12%. But for San Diego, as with the rest of California, almost a third of these household that are insecure with hunger are also low income households. So as wages are being cut and hours are being reduced, these are the same families that are struggling to make ends meet and living on the verge of poverty.

CAVANAUGH: You know, even though there was a lot made of this new survey coming out and the numbers were surprising to many people, as you put it, Murtaza, the fact that we’re dealing with such unemployment and such a deep recession, are these numbers really surprising at all?

BAXAMUSA: The numbers themselves are not surprising, it is the starkness, the steep increase that is surprising. We – none of the economists predicted that the hunger problem was steep to such an extent that we would have 1 in 6 Americans that would be struggling with hunger issues. We expected the numbers to increase but not so significantly. And the same in the San Diego County as well, we saw in this year, in 2008, poverty level rise to 12.6% over a percentage increase in a single year. It’s hit really hard. 46,000 people additionally that slid into poverty last year. So it is a combination of a hunger crisis with an economic crisis.

CAVANAUGH: And is the situation expected to get worse?

BAXAMUSA: Yeah, the situation is considerably worse this year, 2009. The data does not capture that. So I want to say that in this case, we would expect the numbers to get worse before they got better.

CAVANAUGH: I’m speaking with Murtaza Baxamusa. And Gary McDonald I want to bring into the conversation. He’s president and CEO of Feeding America San Diego. We are taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. And, Gary, these – we’ve been talking about numbers, and you deal largely with people. So tell us what these numbers mean in terms of what you see and the face of food insecurity in San Diego.

MCDONALD: Well, the people getting in line are more diverse. These are people that have just lost their position, their employment. We see a lot of mothers with children. We see more – people that are dressed like you and I, that are having a hard time putting food on the table. So there’s a bigger diversity among the people that are showing up. It really is tragic to see the number of children that are in line for food, and the numbers are increasing as well. We’ve seen distributions as large as 600 people, people lined up around the block to get in line for 10, 15, 20 pounds of food just to help them get through the week.

CAVANAUGH: And how is the hunger spread around our county? Are there pockets of places that are more affected than others?

MCDONALD: Absolutely.

CAVANAUGH: Of course, yeah.

MCDONALD: Of course, absolutely. I mean, if you live in a high income area chances are you’re not going to be food insecure unless, of course, you lost your employment then you may be in a position where you’re not being able to put food on the table. We definitely have pockets in south county, east county and even in north county and, of course, in the downtown area. I think the biggest misnomer is that most people think that the people that get food from our food bank, from Feeding America San Diego, are homeless. That’s only about 12% of the people. 10% are elderly. Two-thirds are female, mothers and daughters. And almost half of them are working families. So these are families that are struggling, these are – a lot of them are working menial jobs that are just getting minimum wage and they’re hardworking people. And, again, all the people that have been added to the ranks of unemployment are contributing to the longer lines.

CAVANAUGH: Now, that’s a staggering statistic you just gave us. Two-thirds of the people who are served by Feeding America are female.


CAVANAUGH: Now, does that have something to do with the fact that it would be the woman or the daughter who would stand in line to get the food for the family?

MCDONALD: Well, these are young children, typically, or it’s on a weekend or it’s in the evening or if it’s early in the morning before school starts. But a lot of the people that are in line are single mothers so there’s no one else to take care of their children so they have to bring their children with them. In terms of households with children headed by single women, 37% across the United States are food insecure, which is a huge number. It’s probably the leading number. So it is – You know, we’re really focusing on programs that are dealing with food insecurity for children.

CAVANAUGH: We are talking about food insecurity and the new numbers from the Department of Agriculture and also how it’s affecting families right here in San Diego. Our number is 1-888-895-5727. And let’s take a call now. Jessica is calling from San Diego. Good morning, Jessica. Welcome to These Days.

JESSICA (Caller, San Diego): Good morning.

CAVANAUGH: Yes, what’s…



JESSICA: Umm-hmm. I’d just like to point out that I work with a lower socio-economic status. I actually work in a rehab and I’m a student and I think it’s – it just really struck me because it’s not just those that are in a lower socio-economic status. I’m a student and I feel food insecure. I mean, I’m tapped out on debts. I have all the money that I have needs to be put into that and things to get me by and I work for free just trying to get through, and it’s an awful feeling that I think a lot of people feel that even don’t have to struggle in that lower socio-economic status, so it’s kind of interesting.

CAVANAUGH: Jessica, have you used any resources? Any food resources here in San Diego in order to get by?

JESSICA: No, but I’m taking notes.

CAVANAUGH: Okay. All right. Thank you so much for calling. Let me go from – Suppose – Let me talk to you, Bill. I’m sorry. I’m getting a little confused here. You’re service design manager for 211 San Diego. Suppose you got a call from somebody like Jessica and she basically said the same thing, that she’s looking for some sort of food program resource in San Diego. What would you do with that call?

YORK: Well, the first thing we do with calls like that at 211 is a lot of people think just by the nature of the 211 dialing code that we’ll just give them information or a phone number to call. But we’ll actually walk the caller through an assessment of what’s going on in their life. Their economic situation, their food insecurity, and really do a in-detail assessment. Particularly with food, that’s also our fastest rising basic need that we’re seeing, is that we would – we can shortly refer them to food pantries, food banks and tell them where to go today, tomorrow, the next day. But we look at a sort of a holistic approach, what can we do ongoing? And so we have a great partnership with the California Association of Food Banks, the County, and some community-based organizations to pre-screen our callers to see if they might be eligible for the food stamp program as well. Food stamp program is sort of an overall best program to help with food insecurity. And the USDA has recently made some major changes last year, they’re continually making changes. The County has upped the process to getting people access to food stamps so we would actually be able to pre-screen them, going over some category eligibility, some pieces of it to see if they might be eligible and actually walk them through the power – the process and empower them to actually apply.

CAVANAUGH: I wonder if somebody doesn’t really want to go through that right now, can you just tell them where they could pick up some from a food bank or something like that?

YORK: Absolutely. And that’s what we’re seeing, a lot of people don’t want to go through that process, which is too bad because it – it’s a valuable program. But, absolutely, we can tell them where to go today, tomorrow, what they need to bring, when the food, you know, banks and food pantries will be available and sometimes even what they have.

CAVANAUGH: And, Gary, at Feeding America, do you also have an outreach for food stamps?

MCDONALD: Normally, we refer to 211 because…


MCDONALD: …, yeah, they’re really the experts and we don’t want to duplicate what they’re doing. We want to remain as efficient as possible. Matter of fact, we were the only food bank last year that distributed more than one million pounds per employee. And 98 cents of every dollar went to programs, which makes us one of the most efficient not only food banks but one of the most efficient nonprofits in America. And the reason we’re doing that is because we’re allowing people that are experts to do what they do best.

CAVANAUGH: Well, it’s funny because while Bill was explaining these services—and it sounds great—but Murtaza, I had the idea that, you know, there would be this hesitance perhaps in actually going full bore and actually giving your – all your statistics in order to try to sign up for food stamps. Why would that be? Why is there this hesitancy, do you think?

BAXAMUSA: There’s a certain amount of stigma attached to applying for federal nutrition programs. But at the same time, the County red tape does not make it easier. There are multiple hurdles to overcome. Not only must you follow a income limit, you must submit an application, submit yourself to fingerprinting, assigned to a caseworker, an investigator that performs an asset test, they come to your house to check. There’s 8 layers of documentation. You have to submit to our orientation and, often, a 60 day wait period. If you are a single mom that’s lost her job today and is worrying about putting food on the table, then this is not the humiliation you want to go through to get what you need, what is that the government should provide for you. So we have a problem in our system.

CAVANAUGH: Bill, but your 211 is trying to make it easier?

YORK: We are working with community based partners, working with the County, working with the California Association of Food Banks. We can walk people through that process. You know, there are – it is a process, it’s a partnership with the USDA, with the State and with the County, so there is a process people have to go through, is we can walk them through that process. In January, we’re launching a new program. We’ll actually be able to fill out the application and start that process with callers, tell them what they need to bring and help them make that first appointment. So to make people – It’ll give people easier access to actually applying. We see a lot of times that it is the stigma attached to it, people actually getting to the application process that they don’t want to apply. They’ll go to the food bank and get that service immediately yet they don’t want to necessarily apply for food stamps based on some past stigma, even the name of stamps in the program itself.

CAVANAUGH: Let’s go to our callers. A lot of people want to share their stories with us. We’re taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727, and Kaye is calling from the north county. Good morning, Kaye, and welcome to These Days.

KAYE (Caller, North County): Thank you. I just wanted to support the information that’s been provided today by the speakers and that is I’m from a family that was working very hard and we used to go behind the grocery stores and get our food out of the dumpsters because they were throwing – good food was thrown away when it was still very edible and, in fact, there were quite a few people who did that. My mother would say we can’t take all of this, we have to leave it for the others, and we would go to a couple of different stores so that it was evenly dispersed. And my mom was a seamstress and she babysat and she did a bunch of things. I can’t imagine how much time it must take to stand in these lines. And I’m not saying that, you know, everything free should be easy, I’m just perplexed as to how someone manages that time when they’re taking care of their children and trying to feed them at the same time. And the food stamp program, I think it’s worth, you know, people investing in the time for that but it does have some strict limitations that sometimes don’t actually help when people are in need.

CAVANAUGH: Well, thank you for the – those comments. Thanks for sharing your story, Kaye. I wanted to ask you, Gary, what do we know about people doing that, getting food out of dumpsters now?

MCDONALD: Well, that’s part of food insecurity. The definition for food insecurity is able to access nutritious food in a ongoing basis in a manner that’s acceptable. That would be a manner that is unacceptable. No one should have to jump into a dumpster to find food. One of the programs that we have, we’ve started – we’ve rolled out the Fresh Rescue Program where the food that normally would be dumped out that goes into the dumpsters at the back of Ralph’s, Food 4 Less, Albertson’s, these stores, what we’re doing now is we’re having an agency, one of our partner agencies pick up that food. This is the deli meats, the cheeses, the dairies, the produce, the bakery, that normally would be thrown out. What we’re doing is we’re rescuing that type of food and then getting it out to the community. And this is very nutritious food. And now, all totaled, it’s about 300,000 pounds per month that we’re distributing out of the Fresh Rescue Program.

CAVANAUGH: And what kind of food do people get? When you say that somebody comes and gets, what did you say, a 20 pound box?

MCDONALD: Well, it really depends upon the agency and their assets as well.


MCDONALD: We provide food to 150 nonprofits and each nonprofit has a different number of people that is getting in line. And they also have different distributions. One may be distributing three times a week, one time a week, so it really varies. But more and more people are getting in line so our resources are being stretched. There’s not enough food right now to end food insecurity. We can bring in more food than most other organizations because we’re a member of Feeding America. We get food – Two-thirds of our food comes from outside the county. We’re the only nonprofit that has consistent access to nationally donated food. We get our food from Nabisco, ConAgra, Kraft, Del Monte, more than 1,000 corporations nationwide. We bring in this food for ten cents a pound. If you give me a dollar, I can turn it into ten pounds of food valued at $15.80. That’s a 1500% return on a donor’s investment. That’s where the majority of our food comes from but we need more income to bring in more food.

CAVANAUGH: Let’s take another call. Jennifer’s calling from City Heights. Good morning, Jennifer, and welcome to These Days.

JENNIFER (Caller, City Heights): Hi, thanks for having me. My name’s Jennifer and I work for the San Diego Hunger Coalition and I get to work with Bill and Gary a lot of times. And I just wanted to encourage people when they’re applying for food stamps, first of all, that they should try to apply and call 211 and see if you might qualify. It’s a really, really important part of ending hunger. It’s a great resource. And if you apply and you feel like you’re getting stuck in the process or frustrated, don’t be afraid to ask for a supervisor. Don’t be afraid to call 211 back and say, hey, I need a community partner that can help me get through this, or I have questions. Food stamp dollars are an important part of boosting our economy. For every dollar in food stamps we bring in, it generates over $1.84 in economic activity. So when we’re talking about revitalizing our communities economically, food stamps can play a really huge part in that. So I just want to encourage people and remind people that this is a program that not only benefits people who are hungry but benefits the entire community.

CAVANAUGH: Thank you for that call. And, Gary, you wanted to respond.

MCDONALD: Absolutely. In 2007, which is the most recent number they have for the SNAP benefits, only 35% of those eligible received food stamps in San Diego County, which is in the – some of the lowest statistics in the nation and the 2000 estimated unclaimed benefits is over $107 million for the County. Now if it has nearly a two dollar return, we’re looking at about $180-$190 million of economic activity that we’re bypassing because these people aren’t applying for food stamp benefits. So it’s out there. Now, in May 2004, we had 81,000 people that were on the SNAP enrollment and May 2008, it increased to 103,000. In May 2009, it’s 133,000, so the number is growing but it still lacks, in terms of the percentage, participation when compared to other major cities across the United States.

CAVANAUGH: Murtaza, I’m wondering, how might a survey like was just released about food insecurity help improve delivery of social services like food stamps? Does it have an impact?

BAXAMUSA: The survey essentially is a sample of residents so it is not a census. There will be census out coming again next year. But what the census and other surveys tell us is what kind of people, like Gary just talked about, are struggling to make ends meet. And I think it’s important to emphasize what he said, that regarding the amount of money we’re putting – leaving on the table and that the county’s not able to benefit from, that’s almost $110 million. Now that translates directly into over 1300 jobs in retail and related occupations. If you’re talking about a stimulus, this is a stimulus program we’re missing out on.

CAVANAUGH: I think one of the ironies of this situation that I read about recently is the – one of the reasons that the food stamp program is not growing the way that perhaps it should is that there’s not enough staff because the government can’t afford, the County governments, can’t afford to staff these positions correctly. Is…

BAXAMUSA: Well, the staffing – the administration cost, about a third of it is spent on preventing people from applying. So if – it depends on what your priorities are as a County Board of Supervisors.

CAVANAUGH: Let me ask you, because we are getting short on time, Bill, we’re coming up on Thanksgiving and I’m wondering what the situation is for food banks – I’m sorry, Gary, I’m wondering what the situation is about – on food banks across San Diego? Are we prepared for Thanksgiving and the holiday season?

MCDONALD: Well, hunger’s not really a seasonal issue. And a lot of people think that they…

CAVANAUGH: Yeah, yeah.

MCDONALD: They think about people being hungry during the holidays because possibly out of guilt or maybe there’s a focus on food in Thanksgiving, the month of November. There’s a – people are thankful for what they have and then they start thinking about other people. But the hunger issue is really an issue year round. Children go to bed hungry every day of the year somewhere in the United States, somewhere in San Diego County. I mean, there are 16.7 million children in the United States living in food insecure households. That is a fact that is year round. That doesn’t just happen during the Thanksgiving holiday. So is there enough food right now to end food insecurity? No. But that’s why everyone needs to be involved. The government, corporations, foundations, and individuals, we all need to make a concerted effort in ending food insecurity in our county.

CAVANAUGH: We might have time for really a very quick phone call. Christine is calling from downtown. Good morning, Christine. Welcome to These Days.

CHRISTINE (Caller, Downtown): Hi, good morning. Thank you for taking my call. I just real quickly I wanted to address the issue you’re speaking about for the food stamp program for the red tape. I myself applied in October. My husband lost his job. I’m the only one with an income. We have three young children. They did not get back to me with a letter until four weeks later. They actually scheduled me for a day when I was working.

CAVANAUGH: Christine, I’m going to have to stop you and I am so terrible sorry. Please do post your comment at We’re just plain out of time. I want to thank my guests, Murtaza Baxamusa, Gary McDonald, and Bill York. Thank you all so much for being here with us today.

MCDONALD: You’re welcome. Thank you.

YORK: Thank you.

BAXAMUSA: Thank you.

CAVANAUGH: Stay with us for hour two of These Days coming up in just a few minutes here on KPBS.

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