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A Half-Million San Diegans Struggle To Put Food On Thanksgiving Table

Picking up Thanksgiving ingredients from a food pantry is something Holly Ramos never imagined doing.

“Like the mashed potatoes, the green beans, the pumpkin pie filling,” said Ramos.

The college-educated mother of two said money has been tight since she quit her job as a preschool teacher in order to care for her autistic son.

“And to make sure I’m in his life,” Ramos said. “His schedule is full of services, and if I’m not there, there’d be no way that he could get them.”

With her husband’s salary as their only income, Ramos goes twice a month to the food pantry at New Seasons Church in Spring Valley, where she's a member and volunteers in children's ministry.

“It supplements meals — fruits and vegetables and breads,” Ramos said. “So all the components of your food group are here.”

Ramos is one of a half-million people in San Diego County who receive food assistance. Altogether, one in six people in the county struggle to get enough to eat, and many are children.

According to a recent Feeding America report, the county’s overall hunger rate declined slightly in 2013, but hunger among children continues to rise. Nearly a quarter of children lack enough food to eat.

Every week, thousands line up for canned goods, dairy products and produce at food bank distribution sites, including the Salvation Army in El Cajon, which has the highest poverty rate in the county.

But hunger spans the region — even to the affluent coastal city of Del Mar.

John Norgard gets food aid from a Feeding America distribution site at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church located along the coastal bluffs overlooking the ocean.

“I’ve been coming here for the last four or five years,” said Norgard, who was a salesman until the economic downturn in 2008.

“I sold furniture, but when the big crash came nobody was buying houses,” Norgard said. “And nobody bought furniture then, too.”

Photo by Susan Murphy

People line up for canned foods at the Salvation Army in El Cajon, October 22, 2014.

Feeding droves of people takes a network of food sources and an army of volunteers.

Pam Economides has been on the front lines of fighting hunger in North County for more than 15 years.

“It really makes you feel awful when you think about people who are hungry and all over the world, and just all of the food that goes to waste,” Economides said.

She volunteers with Feeding America San Diego's Food Rescue program, picking up and sorting perishable items from grocery stores that would otherwise go to waste and then bringing them to people in need at the Community Resource Center in Encinitas.

“We get two truck loads every day, and that covers five grocery stores that we get food from," Economides said.

The trucks "are filled with produce and meat and boxes of bread,” she said.

Feeding America partners with 160 grocery stores and retailers across the county and rescues nearly 1 million pounds of food each month.

Jennifer Tracy, executive director of the San Diego Hunger Coalition, said programs like these are helping to close the gap of the 79 million meals that some people miss each year.

“We almost ended hunger at the end of the 1970s through the expansion of programs like food stamps, WIC (Women, Infants and Children) and senior meals,” Tracy said. “In the '80s, those programs were cut and we saw a significant increase in hungry people.”

Tracy said her passion for ending hunger started when she was a child.

“I didn’t go hungry as a child because of the food stamp program being available when my dad would get laid off from his construction job,” she said. “I participated in the reduced price meal program as a child as well, and I didn’t go hungry because that program was available for my family.”

Tracy said expanding federal school food programs, increasing food stamp use and lifting people out of poverty are key in solving the hunger crisis within 10 years.

“We’re looking at the projections of how’s the population going to change, what’s going to happen with poverty and how much more do we need to increase the work that we’re doing in order to meet the need," she said.

The need of those like Ramos in Spring Valley, who this Thanksgiving is grateful for the food she has received and to those who provided it.

“You’re remembered the next time you come in and it’s, ‘Hey, how are you?’ and great big hugs,” Ramos said.

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