The federal government has tried to define for us what being hungry means. They’ve come up with a yardstick, "food insecurity," which means people who have less food than they want and need. It includes not only people who go hungry, but also those who’ve had to reduce the amount they eat, skip meals, or eat food they know isn’t good for them because they can’t afford what it really takes to eat.
Late last fall the U.S. Department of Agriculture released a report that counted the number of hungry families. Some 16 percent of all families were food insecure (up from 12 percent in 2007). That amounted to 49 million people, including more than 16 million children. That’s almost a quarter of all the children in the United States. This year we know the number is higher, we just don’t know how much .
About one-third of those families went hungry. The other two-thirds survived because they had access to federal food programs, or got food at a local food pantry or soup kitchen. That means they were hungry too, but not quite as much. Hunger isn’t spread evenly. More than one-quarter of all black and Latino households were food insecure, compared to 16 percent in general, and more than 13 percent of all families made up of single moms and their children.
Some 42.2 percent of food-insecure households had incomes below the official poverty line of $21,834 for a family of 4 in 2008. So more than half of all hungry families had incomes above the poverty line, a line so low that millions of families not officially "in poverty" don’t have enough money to buy the food they need. In 2009, with unemployment in California reaching more than 12 percent, these numbers went up.
Families that formerly had no trouble feeding themselves, who went out to eat in restaurants, couldn’t put enough food on the table to keep everyone from going hungry. So people went to food banks, food pantries, and soup kitchens to try to make up for what they could no longer buy. Almost five million people went to food pantries last year, up from four million the year before. About 625,000 ate in soup kitchens.
National numbers sometimes don’t tell the local story, though. How many hungry people do we have where we actually live? Alameda County, with a population of 1.5 million, had probably a quarter of a million food insecure people in 2008; Contra Costa 160,000; Oakland 64,000; Berkeley and Richmond 16,000 each; Hayward over 22,000; Alameda over 11,000; and over 20,000 hungry children in Oakland. Here are a few of our neighbors and how they’ve managed to survive.
Beverly Cherkoff cooks her meals in a tiny kitchen in a van where plastic flowers climb the radio aerial. Cherkoff, who parks the van in the parking lots of a couple of local factories, says she discovered one day, talking with the Mexican workers there, that they sometimes came to work hungry. She got a little extra food from the Davis Street food pantry and began cooking for them also. Today, she fills big bags with lettuce and carts away boxes of mushrooms. Shared food, she believes, makes you feel like people can all survive if they look out for each other. Most of the other people who get food at Davis Street have jobs, too, but still don’t make enough money to both buy food and pay rent.
Mary Katherine Jones lives with her son, Curtis, in a single-room occupancy hotel in downtown Oakland. Jones receives SSDI as a disabled diabetic and Curtis is her in-home care provider. The room has no refrigeration or kitchen so they have to keep their perishable foods in a cooler. Food doesn’t keep well this way. It’s also important to wash the cooler out every day in order to prevent sickness. Mary Katherine sometimes has to choose between paying for medications and buying food. To get to the store they have to take a bus and pay $2 round trip. Jones is a gospel singer and had been singing with a ministry in LA until they encouraged her to move to Oakland about a year ago. Now she spends her time going to bible school, singing, and writing music. She goes to St. Mary’s Center for seniors, located on the Oakland/Emeryville border. Curtis was an actor in bit parts in LA and takes classes in computer repair while looking for similar work in the Bay Area.
Coleen McEneany used to be a private investigator. Her husband worked for Circuit City as an information technology specialist. But the PI work dried up in the recession and Circuit City closed. With their daughter, they moved into the Fremont home of her mother, a retired sixth-grade teacher. While the home has a pool and a well-tended garden, resources were stretched so thin that they now depend on food and help from Tri-City Volunteers. Ironically, she knew about the food pantry because she and her husband were both donors to the program back when they were working. With a degree in criminal justice, Coleen has hopes that she’ll somehow find a job. In the meantime, she is taking courses for a degree in early childhood education.
Nnekia Stevenson was living with her three-year-old son and his father in Berkeley. Despite holding down two jobs while her son’s father worked in construction, she couldn’t make ends meet and moved in with her mom in Fruitvale. Neither had much money and hardly any furniture. Nnekia works with children at a local agency, ISOP, and was able to get a few days work a month at the New United Motors Manufacturing plant in Fremont. But NUMMI closed in April, so Nnekia plans to start school in the fall to get a degree in childhood development. Nnekia’s mother gets SSI for her disability, which disqualifies them for food stamps. Terri was homeless off and on for 30 years, but finally moved into a shelter, Chrysalis, where she participated in rehab and got help finding a home.
Jim Reagan used to live in Peoples’ Park in Berkeley. Last fall, he traded sleeping bags under the trees for a single-room occupancy hotel in Berkeley. Before living in the park, he worked in homeless shelters, but then became homeless himself for two years. Now he hopes to become a caterer while living month-to-month waiting for SSI checks. We met Jim at "Night on the Streets/Catholic Worker," a crew of dedicated volunteers, many from local churches, who bring breakfast to homeless folks in Peoples’ and Provo Parks every Sunday morning.
Oscar Fernandez, a day laborer from Mexico, lives in Hayward. His family lives in Merced in the Central Valley where his wife works in a large retail store. Oscar can’t find work in Merced, so during the week he goes to Hayward and only sees the family on the weekend. Once a month Oscar and dozens of other mostly Mexican families spend the night on the sidewalk, waiting for the food distribution by Hope for the Heart on Saturday morning.
David Bacon is a freelance writer and photographer. He took the photos in this piece. Betsy Edwards is the advocacy manager of the Alameda County Community Food Bank.