Amid COVID-19, food insecurity worsens in Sacramento CA

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Volunteer Carolyn Hairston, of Elk Grove, readies boxes of food for volunteers to load into cars that are waiting at Hiram Johnson High School in January at one of the food distribution sites run by the Sacramento Food Bank.

The Sacramento Bee

The line of cars snaked through Hiram W. Johnson High School’s parking lot and down four blocks at 8:30 a.m. The meals wouldn’t be distributed for another half hour.

At the Sacramento Food Bank & Family Services pick-up spot recently, there were trucks and minivans, motorcycles and Priuses, Lyft stickers and handicapped parking placards. Tahoe Park residents walked over to pick up 40-pound boxes of chicken, apples, pears, canisters of powdered milk and cans of beans.

The vast majority have jobs and roofs over their heads.

“The face of hunger, I think, would surprise most people who have never reached out in need of a food program,” said Sacramento Food Bank & Family Services President and CEO Blake Young.

“It’s just amazing how many people have children or have worked their whole life. They and their spouse have jobs, it’s just that their expenses on a monthly basis exceed what they can afford.”

About one in eight Sacramento County residents struggles with food insecurity, according to The Bee’s analysis of recent data from the Chicago-based nonprofit Feeding America.

Under-resourced and low-income neighborhoods like North Highlands, south Sacramento, west Arden Arcade and North Vineyard have significantly higher rates of food insecurity compared to the rest of the county. In some parts of Oak Park, Old North Sacramento and Hagginwood, more than 95% of students receive free or reduced lunch.

And that was before the pandemic.

Families and workers who never visited a food bank prior to COVID-19 lined up multiple times a week to get free groceries, advocates said. Some had family members get sick or couldn’t afford or find childcare while schools held remote classes. For many, money was already tight, and food was the first and easiest place to skimp.

Before COVID-19, the local food bank and its partner agencies served about 150,000 people per month. Now, they serve 300,000 people monthly.

In the farm-to-fork capital, thousands are without forks.

That includes Citrus Heights resident Michelle McAllister, who grew up attending Advent Lutheran Church and now relies on its food closet, stocked by Sunrise Christian Food Ministry, to feed herself and her two daughters.

“It’s really scary. I feel very insecure. At night I can barely fall asleep, thinking about ‘where does this or that come from?’ ” McAllister said. “Thank God for the food closet. It’s pretty much saved us.”

The common narrative around food insecurity is that food deserts — areas where grocery stores and food markets are scarce — are the main culprit. But community advocates, public officials and food policy experts said that explanation is too simple, offering a convenient crutch for institutional failures.

“I’ve been trying to kill the term because it does damage,” said UC Davis food systems professor Catherine Brinkley. “You can be poor and live next to a grocery store and still not be able to afford food.”

The Sacramento region’s rapidly swelling cost of living and stagnant wages force residents to skip meals, buy cheaper fast food and leave fridges barren, experts said. Nearly 60,000 Sacramentans can’t find affordable housing, and thousands pay half their wages toward rent alone. A car repair or a sudden medical expense could leave a family spiraling.

A lack of economic investment and political will from both private and public entities have deprived neighborhoods of economic opportunity, perpetuating cycles of poverty. Sacramentans of color disproportionately experience the effects of institutional neglect.

More than 111,000 families and individuals in Sacramento County received some kind of government food benefit in April this year. As many as one in four people struggled with hunger in some neighborhoods — such as parts of downtown Sacramento, Arden Arcade, the Parkway and old North Sacramento.

But most estimates struggle to capture how widespread hunger is in the region, experts said.

One study found a majority of households in Sacramento County struggling with hunger actually make too much to receive federal food assistance. And thousands more qualify but aren’t signed up.

“Hunger is a manifestation of poverty and inequity in your society, so the way to address hunger is to get to those root causes,” said Trish Kelly, managing director of the regional nonprofit Valley Vision.

The consequences of inaction are insidious. Food insecurity has been linked to everything in children from birth defects to oral decay to asthma to mental health issues, according to a 2015 study published in the journal Health Affairs. In adults, it’s a major contributor to diseases like hypertension and diabetes, a 2010 study in The Journal of Nutrition found.

“(This problem) was years in the making, and it’s going to be years in the undoing,” Food Literacy Center CEO Amber Stott said. “It’s like moving the Titanic. It’s going to take a lot of effort and a lot of long years. It’s not going to really change until you fix the entire system. You can’t Band-Aid over these problems.”

One of the most basic reasons people cannot afford to feed themselves and their families is because they do not earn enough money to make ends meet, even when working multiple jobs.

Sacramento Food Policy Council president Brenda Ruiz immigrated from from Guatemala and has cooked at Sacramento restaurants such as The Waterboy, Freeport Bakery and The Kitchen since 1996. She remembers pushing back against the Sacramento City Council’s 2015 plan to increase the minimum wage to only $12.50 per hour by 2020.

Though the minimum wage would have been 50 cents higher than the state floor, protesters were incensed, arguing it didn’t go far enough to ensure a living wage for families.

They were right. To afford the average rent today in Sacramento — meaning, spending about 30% of one’s income on payments — a worker would need to make nearly double the state’s $14-an-hour minimum wage, according to the California Housing Partnership.

Sacramentans are being forced to make hard choices, Ruiz said.

“As your rent, your health care, your utilities eat up more and more of your dollar, the food budget gets smaller and smaller and smaller until at one point you’re over the brink,” Ruiz said. “That’s when you say, ‘I have to feed myself, so I’ll be without housing so I can afford to pay for medicine and food.’ ”

Now, the unprecedented pressure on government and nonprofit agencies induced by the pandemic is beginning to subside this summer. Advocates and officials are working on how to build on new programs and relationships forged during the public health crisis to ensure Sacramentans can buy and eat healthy foods.

Several agencies will study the local food system to identify key barriers to food equity. Sacramento City Councilwoman Mai Vang plans to put together a task force on food insecurity. The city will begin designing three “food-anchored resilience hubs” — spaces that can host farmer’s markets, offer charging stations and more — this summer. A city-supported pilot guaranteed income program may come to Sacramento soon.

“How do we actually draw in some dollars to actually invest in these ZIP codes?” Vang said. “I do think there are solutions out there. There just needs to be political will to face the challenges.”

Profile Image of Alexandra Yoon-Hendricks

Alexandra Yoon-Hendricks covers equity issues in the Sacramento region. She’s previously worked at The New York Times and NPR, and is a former Bee intern. She graduated from UC Berkeley, where she was the managing editor of The Daily Californian.
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