Where’s the food?

More people than ever are struggling just to put a meal on the table. Here’s a look at the changing face of need in the Sacramento region.

by Hugh Biggar
December 12, 2011
News & Review

If you want the scoop on how Sacramento residents are holding up in a tough economy, you can check out any number of news stories about high unemployment and shrinking social services. Or you can just ask Richard.

“You just have to look at their shoes,” he says, while standing in line at a Sacramento Food Bank & Family Services site at St. Matthew Christian Church off of Stockton Boulevard, where he is sometimes a client and sometimes a volunteer.

“The homeless guys, their shoes are more scuffed, worn out, have holes,” Richard, who asked that his last name not be used, continues, pointing out one of his neighbors in line. He adds, “The ones who are working, they have nicer shoes, cleaner, newer, less wear on their tires.”

Not yet, at least.

Those shoes represent the new face—and feet—of rising need in the Sacramento Valley. And the line at St. Matthew is emblematic of what is most often needed—food assistance.

“The number of [food-stamp] caseloads is increasing quite substantially,” Keri Aiello, a spokeswoman for Sacramento County’s Department of Social Services, says, while noting the numbers of those in need of help is at a record high.

Along the way, the new face of need now includes families, students and those with jobs but whose incomes do not go far enough to cover essentials.

The line at St. Matthew includes a 10-year-old, two Vietnam War veterans, retired folks and a 20-something caring for his disabled mother. It includes those with shelter and those without. They arrive on foot, on motorized wheelchairs and on bicycles.

Some, but not all, are part of a dramatic jump in local participation in the federal food-stamp program, known in California as CalFresh.

Sacramento County’s CalFresh caseloads, which can include individuals and households with several people, have nearly doubled in the last five years. Those receiving benefits rose from about 45,000 in October 2006, to 88,000 as of October 2011. Similarly, the number of Californians taking part in CalFresh has also almost doubled in recent years, and now includes more than 2.3 million people.

Like those at St. Matthew in Colonial Heights, these numbers include a broad range of people and backgrounds.

“The variety of households taking part has increased astronomically,” explains Matthew Sharp, senior advocate for the nonprofit, California Food Policy Advocates. “This includes families that have never struggled with unemployment before, and it has had a staggering effect on them.”

Aiello says that Sacramento County’s CalFresh applications for food benefits only, rather than food and cash aid, have risen 26 percent since 2008. She says that this points to a rise in applicants who already have a source of income.

Additionally, there are millions in California and thousands locally who are not getting assistance, but would likely benefit from it. In turn, the associated social, health and economic costs from people going hungry or with inadequate nutrition are also quite high and far reaching.

In Sacramento County, this includes about 45,000 individuals who qualified for CalFresh in 2010 but did not receive it. In Yolo County, at the low end of state participation, about 70 percent of those eligible did not enroll, according to CFPA figures. Children missing out and going hungry can in turn have a harder time in school and develop related health problems, such as diabetes. Economically, the CFPA used federal statistics to determine that local business and the state lose on food-stamp dollars and sales-tax revenue (about $5 billion annually or nearly $9 billion in related economic activity).

Sacramento Food Bank and Family Service volunteers sort food donations at St. Matthew Christian Church in Colonial Heights.

“We are seeing more families with children; every fourth person we serve is a child,” Eileen Thomas, executive director of the River City Food Bank, told SN&R. “The fastest growing demographic group is seniors, 55 years and older. In January 2011, we served 292 seniors. In November, we served 500.”

As part of this, CFPA estimates approximately 133,000 individuals received CalFresh in Sacramento County last year and 11,000 in Yolo County. Many of these households include senior citizens, children and those with jobs. The U.S. Department of Agriculture—the federal administrator of the food-stamp program—has also that found 70 percent of children in “food insecure” homes live in a household with a full-time working adult.

“Overall wages have declined dramatically, particularly in the service industries,” Sharp says, explaining why income sometimes does not go far enough to cover essentials such as rent, transportation and utilities. “California’s high housing costs and extreme unemployment are two forces that have put pressure on households.”

Meanwhile, there is also a large group of people who are living on the margins but still earn too much to qualify for official assistance due to the one-size-fits-all approach to federal poverty benchmarks. The official poverty line—the level needed to qualify for help—is the same for each state in the lower (contiguous) United States, despite wide regional differences in costs of living.

For a household of four, the federal poverty level is $22,350. But the research group, Insight Center for Community Economic Development, has found that the typical family of four in California needs about $63,000, due to a higher cost of living.

In Sacramento County, the Insight Center says a household of three people would need about $50,000 (or three full-time minimum-wage jobs) to cover housing, food, health care, transportation, child care and taxes.

As a result, area food banks including the Sacramento Food Bank and River City Food Bank are seeing soaring demand that is not likely to level off in the near future.

“The recession has erased a lot of the social gains made during the 1990s, so it will take a number of years to make that up,” says Caroline Danielson of the Public Policy Institute of California in Oakland.

Thomas also points out that many people, particularly those older than 55, have given up trying to find a job and, subsequently, are not included in official statistics.

“To many of us, these trends are frightening,” she wrote in an email. “By the same token, the families with children can not quite close the gap and must come to food banks like RCFB to make ends meet.”

There has been some progress. As part of a push to boost CalFresh enrollment closer to the 75 percent participation average for states, Gov. Jerry Brown signed legislation eliminating some barriers to access. One hurdle, a fingerprinting requirement for those 18 and older, ends this month. Another barrier, a requirement that CalFresh recipients file quarterly reports, will end next year. Instead, California will switch to simplified semi-annual, or roughly twice a year reporting, beginning in 2013.

But other restrictions remain in place.

Nancy Weed, a food-stamp outreach coordinator at Partners for a Hunger-Free Oregon, says removing limits on assets has helped enormously in Oregon. The state ended that requirement, known as categorical eligibility, 10 years ago and has seen participation skyrocket. Now, 90 percent of those who qualify receive food stamps.

“A lot of times, people who need help don’t think they qualify because they have a car or have to run through their savings first,” Weed says.

But until such program changes occur in California, and with economy and incomes still flat, people will keep lining up at places like St. Matthew, looking for whatever help they can get.

With this mind, and since statistics tell only part of the story, SN&R decided to speak with people in Sacramento struggling on a daily basis to put food on the table. Here is what a few of them had to say.

Mom and dad both work at Little Caesars Pizza, and that helps the Medina family put food on the table. But the children are ready for something other than pizza.

The Medina Family

The first thing you notice when you enter Aletha and Marcus Medina’s apartment in Del Paso Heights is a big pizza box on the dinner table. This makes sense, because no matter how you slice it, pizza plays an important role in the Medinas’ life.

Marcus and Aletha both rely on free pizzas from work to feed their five children: Vanessa, 10; Nevaeh, 6; Marcus Jr., 3; Lilliana, 1-and-a-half; Yasenia, 10 months.

The pizza supplements the nutritional assistance they receive from two federal programs—CalFresh and Women, Infants and Children.

“My kids say, ‘Can’t we have something other than pizza?’” Marcus says. “But I only make $8 an hour, so every little bit helps.”

Adds Aletha, “WIC helps us get milk, peanut butter, cheese.”

Like her husband, she works at a Little Caesars Pizza restaurant, though in a different location and as a manager. She has trained as a phlebotomist and a medical assistant but has been unable to find employment in that field. In the meantime, she pays off student loans from her medical training.

Marcus has worked in a variety of jobs including in heating and air conditioning, running a rental-car outlet, and has also taken computer classes at American River College.

But he has also come up short in finding better-paying opportunities, which creates a kind of feedback loop.

“The more time it is away from [skilled] employment … it pushes my skills back,” he says. “So when you go get an interview, [employers] ask about those gaps.”

So for now, the Medinas rely on a patchwork of support services—CalFresh, WIC, food banks, Medi-Cal for health care and pizza, of course.

“We are barely surviving. We just had our lights turned off for a month,” Marcus says.

Since both parents work evening and weekend shifts, family members such as Aletha’s sister and aunt help out with child care, though they are also working multiple jobs.

“If we’re lucky, we can find a family member to watch the kids,” Aletha says.

Holidays are a luxury. Marcus adds he used his day off last month to wait in line for a Thanksgiving turkey, and nearly missed out when the distribution site ran out of turkeys.

He pleaded his case, and they found an extra.

“It was embarrassing. I thought to myself, ‘This is what I have to settle for,’” he says. “But I wanted to make sure my kids had a turkey for Thanksgiving.”

With their tight budget, Christmas presents for the five children are also unlikely.

In addition to presents, for Marcus and Aletha, holidays would also ideally include seafood, especially crab, which they love but are unable to afford.

“We are struggling paycheck to paycheck; I am looking for anything that pays more,” Marcus says. “Because just when you think you are getting ahead, the bills get you.”

Frances Grace stocks up on donated canned goods before winter, when her arthritis makes carrying them home difficult.

Frances Grace

Frances Grace grew up on the corner of Seventh and E streets, just across from the downtown Sacramento rail yards. The house is gone now, but an orange tree she liked to climb as a girl is still there.

Grace lived at Seventh and E until graduating from Sacramento High School, then went on to 30-year career as a medical aid and licensed nurse. She also married (her husband worked at Aldo Foods) and raised a family.

Retired for medical reasons and a widow now, she still lives close to where she grew up and goes by occasionally for a visit.

“If I could still climb now, I could get me some oranges,” Grace says with a smile.

Instead, Grace has reluctantly turned to food banks for assistance.

“I worked my tail off and felt bad about needing the help, but Amy [Dierlam] told me I shouldn’t, because they are many more like me,” she says. She adds that Dierlam, an outreach coordinator for River City Food Bank, also helped her navigate the labyrinthine food-stamp application process, one that included fingerprinting and loads of paperwork.

After six months, Grace received her CalFresh benefits this year and depends on it and area food banks for essentials. Fresh oranges and other produce, though, are more problematic.

While her CalFresh debit card is accepted at local farmers markets, without a car, Grace has difficulty reaching the markets.

“I have a hard time getting the fruit and vegetables I need,” Grace says in the living room of her small home off of Richards Boulevard, just north of downtown. “Everything is so expensive, and shopping pulls you all over the place. The nearest store is over on Truxel Road.”

To make do, Grace stocks up at the food banks, game planning her month so she does not go over the limit on how many visits she can make.

For the winter, she has also loaded up on canned goods, since her arthritis sets in during the colder months and makes it difficult for her to carry the heavier cans.

Her 18-year-old grandson, a senior at C.K. McClatchy High School, also lives with her in the four-room house and helps out when he can.

While he is at school, Grace reads and plays solitaire on a computer, using the zoom function to make the cards bigger and easier to read.

“I love to read but need new glasses,” Grace says. “But Medi-Cal doesn’t pay for glasses,” or, she adds matter-of-factly, “the dentist.”

Even so, she is grateful for the help she does get.

“CalFresh isn’t much [$4.50 a day], but every dollar helps,” Grace says. “And all the food banks really help me. I go to River City and two other places, so I am pretty well set. If it wasn’t for them, I don’t know how I would make it.”

Cassandra Young keeps shopping simple, relying on federal assistance and lots of chicken.

Cassandra Young

Talking with Cassandra Young is more like a drive-by interview.

She is a little hard to pin down, both on the phone and in person, despite her good intentions.

Even so, she finds time between her three jobs to talk at a Target store near American River College.

As scheduled, she shows up early on a Monday morning, but doesn’t have time to sit down before she is interrupted by a call on her cellphone.

A client at one of her jobs as a home-care assistant needs an urgent ride.

“I have to stretch it however I can,” Young says, before she drives off on the errand.

When she returns 45 minutes later, she has more time and takes a seat in a small coffee shop at the department store.

She has been pretty much on the move since she arrived in Sacramento in 1997, she says.

After settling here from her native Seattle to be closer to her sister, she has worked a variety jobs and also raised two daughters. Just across the street is the Jack in the Box where she got her first job, she says.

Now, she works as a home-care aide at a Sacramento County-run day care and also works at Chuck E. Cheese on the weekends.

She also cares for her developmentally disabled daughter and her daughter’s children, all of whom live with her in a small apartment near Rancho Cordova.

In addition to her employment income, Young also relies on state and federal aid to put food on the table.

“I don’t know what I would do without WIC,” she says of the federal program that provides women and children under the age of 5 with supplemental nutrition services—which nearly got axed by the federal government this year (see “Poor nutrition,” SN&R Frontlines, December 1).

“WIC gives us a real cushion: diapers, baby formula, milk, cereal and all that.”

Area food banks also help keep Young afloat, though they can’t help with the bills.

Sometimes, she says, her power and heat get turned off. The gas she uses to drive her home-care patients is also an added expense.

“We receive $334 a month from CalFresh, but it’s still a struggle, especially if you lose hours at work,” Young says. “You think you got a handle on it, and then things get worse like the county day care cutting back. Some days you work, sometimes you don’t.”

Even with the outside help, Young’s grandchildren still miss certain items.

“My grandkids ask me when we can have something other than chicken,” she says. “But food prices keep going up, and I can’t afford it. Even hamburger.”

Sometimes Young thinks about returning to Seattle, where she grew up and still has family.

But for now, her daughters, particularly the one who lives with her and suffers from seizures, and her grandchildren keep her in Sacramento.

“I always find a way,” Young says. “I want to make sure my family is taken care of.”

Bobbie Jo Fuller at home in North Highlands.

Bobbie Jo Fuller

Bobbie Jo Fuller relies on bread to help patch holes.

Through her church, Victory Tabernacle, Fuller takes part in a bread ministry. Along with other volunteers, Fuller picks up surplus bread from a commercial bakery and hands it out to homeless in the Sacramento area.

“I like to help out and pay it forward,” she says, “and also, because I know how it is.”

Fuller speaks from experience based on years of living paycheck to paycheck in service-sector jobs, and more recently through a Social Security stipend.

Along the way, Fuller attended Grant Union High School in Del Paso Heights and has raised seven children, four of whom still live with her and her husband of 25 years, Edward, in North Highlands. He is retired on disability after developing back problems from working as truck driver for several years.

Fuller also left the workforce several years ago due to a back injury. While working in the stock area at Walmart, where she earned $8 an hour, she twisted her back trying to pick up a large television. She continues to take pain medication as a result of the injury, which makes a dent in her limited budget.

Since then, Fuller has relied on a Social Security disability check of $834 a month for income. With a household of seven people (a grandchild lives there as well), along with several pets, the Social Security check is stretched to the limit. For her pets, she tried to find food at a downtown pantry, but was told it was just for the pets of homeless individuals. Instead, she relies on cans of tuna to feed the dogs and cats. As for herself, her Social Security income disqualifies her from the federal food-stamp program CalFresh.

“We barely get by,” Fuller says. “We wait to pay some bills, and we have to plan [which bills to pay] every month.”

Since money is tight, Fuller has turned to different sources to fill the holes in her budget and feed her family.

Her daughter, who is on CalFresh, has helped. Area food banks have also been an important source of assistance and provided a turkey dinner at Thanksgiving and presents for Christmas.

The bread ministry at her church also has its rewards.

In addition to giving out bread, the bakery also sells unused baked goods for $1.

“Sometimes they have treats,” Fuller says, adding that the biggest hole in her food budget is for meat.

“We’d like to have more meat and fruit and vegetables, except it is expensive and hard to get,” she says. “But with help, we get by.”