The State of Hunger in San Diego County

There is plenty of food and money in San Diego County, so why are a million people going hungry every year?
By | November 25, 2019
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As a statistically affluent community with low unemployment, food insecurity doesn’t fit the image of San Diego. Nevertheless, hunger persists just below the surface.

To shine light on the hunger that affects more than one million people in the region, including one-in-five children, the San Diego Hunger Coalition and the newly established Hunger Free San Diego advisory board of more than 25 local nonprofits involved in hunger relief, unveiled a no-nonsense look at the challenge of ending hunger in San Diego.

“What will it take to ensure that all of our community is thriving?” San Diego Hunger Coalition executive director Anahid Brakke asked an audience of more than 200 professionals representing local nonprofits, philanthropy, government, healthcare and education who gathered for the inaugural State of Hunger Luncheon on November 15th, 2019. “We believed that it will take 69 million meals. That’s the current gap that exists.” 

State of Hunger Luncheon 2019/ Image credit: Anais Beas

Currently 91 percent of food assistance comes from government programs and 9 percent comes from private charity. This creates the impression that the problem can be solved by increasing charity, but the fact is that most programs are actually underutilized. 

The reasons for this are complex, but the results are clear. 

“Hunger is stealing our physical, cognitive and behavioral health,” said Amanda Schultz Brochu, director of Hunger Free San Diego, who noted that reams of research supports the fact that children who eat breakfast are more likely to attend school, be on time, and perform better academically and behaviorally. 

For older San Diegans, hunger contributes to the most preventable and costly medical conditions. Without proper nutrition, medications are less effective, and even more often, people experiencing food insecurity prioritize the purchase of food over medication. 

Hundreds of families were within $100 of the income requirement for aid in 2019.

As the active, self-reliant Boomer generation continues to age, senior programs have to adapt for a population that will never embrace the word “senior.” 

Paul Downey, president of Serving Seniors and a proud member of the Boomer generation, said that they have had to change their tactics to encourage more older San Diegans in need to make use of their services. “That means less meatloaf and more salad,” he said, adding that this change alone had double-digit effects on usage. “All of our meals were healthy, but that was not the perception.” 

Changing perceptions, according to members of the panel, is an important part of the solution. 

Many people are affected by the stigma of receiving aid, no matter their age, so the panel discussed methods to ensure that delivering food aid is a dignified process.

The reality is that there’s a large community of working individuals and families that earn just enough to be disqualified from federal aid even though they fall far short of the region’s cost of living income.  

A family of four in the United States can’t make more than $47,638 and qualify for aid. This number doesn’t change by state, even though in San Diego a family needs an income of about $83,000 to be considered food secure, according to the Insight Center’s California Family Needs Calculator

14 million pounds of food currently going to waste in SD County

“We have to advocate for a regional index,” said Gary Petill, director of Food and Nutrition Services for San Diego Unified School District. He noted that hundreds of families this past year were literally within $100 of the income requirement for aid, some of whom were lower ranking military families on active duty. 

“In the long run, we need to change the federal guidelines,” he said. “But right now, we need to get these families the food they need.”

Vince Hall, the chief executive officer of Feeding San Diego, explained that more than enough food to feed the region’s hungry is being sent directly to the landfill every day because we don’t have enough food rescue programs to capture and redirect it to those who are in need. 

San Diego Hunger Coalition

There is a long waiting list of food donors, but so far, only 110 organizations have volunteered to assist with pick-ups and distribution. Hall encouraged everyone present to reach out to nonprofits and religious groups who are capable of food safe pick-ups to help reclaim the 14 million pounds of food currently going to waste. 

“There may be criticism that we aren’t focusing on the root cause of hunger first, but workplace and social justice reforms will take years,” said Anahid Brakke of the work of Hunger Free San Diego. “Along the way, not having enough food will continue to cripple, devastate and reverberate through the communities that are most vulnerable. So, our role is to provide food right now.”

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A Guide to San Diego Food Non-Profits

From farm advocacy to school gardens, feeding the homeless to nutrition classes, these non-profit groups are leading the fight for fair food in San Diego County.
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