On a recent November afternoon, Hermelinda Hernandez, who had spent 27 years packing cauliflower and cantaloupes from the farms of the Imperial Valley, found herself fourth in line for the monthly distribution of emergency food at the New Life Assembly Church in Calexico.
Hundreds of residents had lined up behind her, but Hernandez had arrived around 10 a.m. – nearly five hours before the church doors opened – because she knew that last month, people had been turned away when the rations of canned goods ran out.
Hernandez, 62, is one in a legion of Californians who either go hungry or worry about where they will get their next meal. It’s a persistent and ongoing concern in the Imperial Valley, which has the highest unemployment rate [PDF] in the state and where 23 percent of the population lives in poverty.
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The economic downturn also is driving the demand for food: Between 2008 and 2011, the Imperial Valley Food Bank tripled the number of people it served at distribution sites like the New Life Assembly Church. The food bank now serves about 12 percent of the county’s residents.
According to an analysis released this month by California Food Policy Advocates, an estimated 20,000 Imperial Valley residents struggle to afford food.
That struggle is a growing problem statewide. The recent report, based on UCLA's 2009 California Health Interview Survey data, found that the number of people with limited access to healthy food had grown by 30 percent since 2007, and it's now a problem that affects 3.7 million Californians. In a study slated for December publication, the National Latino Research Center at CSU San Marcos surveyed residents of rural California communities most affected by the economic crisis. It found access to food is a top concern in all nine counties studied.
Food stamp use, another indication of the struggle for food, is also is on the rise [PDF] in California. Between 2006 and 2011, the number of Californians who signed up for the program has nearly doubled to more than 3.8 million. And in 2010, California received $28 million from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Emergency Food Assistance Program – the most funding [PDF] for emergency food of any state – with more than $223,000 going to Imperial County.
The county with the highest rate of hunger is Contra Costa. Larry Sly, executive director of the Food Bank of Contra Costa and Solano, said high unemployment in cities like Pittsburg and Antioch have contributed to the problem.
“It’s very disconcerting,” Sly said. “It’s people who used to have pretty good jobs who are coming to our distributions. They have never been in a position to ask for help, and they are humiliated. I don’t see it leveling off, which is the scary part.”
In Imperial County, the bitter irony of hunger is that it’s the home of a $1.5 billion agriculture industry.
“Much of the economy relies on agriculture, and many other economic sectors that have tried to move into the area have not created opportunities that provide a livable wage,” said Arcela Nunez-Alvarez, research director of the National Latino Research Center, who has spent a decade studying Imperial County. “The lack of access to food is an expression of the economic challenges the community has faced over the course of many years, and it has been exacerbated by the economic situation.”
That means those who have worked to get fresh fruits and vegetables into grocery stores often can’t afford to buy them for themselves.
“The healthier food is more expensive,” Hernandez, the former produce packer, said in Spanish through an interpreter. “I can’t keep my eyes on that. Instead of a healthy meal, I prepare what I can afford.”
Sara Griffen, executive director of the Imperial Valley Food Bank, said the extent of hunger can be hard to identify.
“The biggest clue is someone who is willing to stand in line for hours for a couple cans of food,” she said. “Hunger, or food insecurity, is a silent thing. It’s difficult to spot. People don’t want other people to know, and it’s difficult to know by looking at them.”
Those who are hungriest actually might be obese, what some health researchers have called the hunger-obesity paradox [PDF].
“They are living on processed food and empty calories and food that will not fill you, but it’s cheaper to spend money on Doritos than prepare a meal,” Griffen said. “We grow amazing produce here in Imperial Valley, but we are so detached from the land.”
Some local growers are trying to help through the California Association of Food Banks’ Farm to Family program, which gleans and donates produce from the fields that aren’t picture-perfect enough for market. Last year, 102 million pounds of fruits and vegetables were offered to food banks across the state through the program, but the need still outstrips what’s available.
“Everyone knows someone who has lost a job,” said Steve Sharp, a third-generation farmer in Imperial County who solicits produce for the Farm to Family program.
At the November distribution at the New Life Assembly Church in Calexico, volunteers spent nearly three hours handing out food. But as the afternoon progressed, bags containing items like beef stew and applesauce began to dwindle, and those still in line had to make do with a box of cereal, crackers and a bag of potatoes.
By the time the sun had set, most of those provisions had run out, and the last dozen people were given a plastic sack of potatoes and a bag of marshmallows. Rachel Espejo, a food bank volunteer, jokingly suggested that everyone could go home and make potatoes with chorizo, even though many wouldn’t be able to afford the meat.
Espejo, her husband and her two school-aged children spent most of the day packing and handing out 384 bags of canned and dried goods to others, but they also were among the 36 households that didn’t get an allocation of emergency food that evening.
As transplants from the greater Los Angeles area, Espejo has come to rely on the food bank because she only recently landed a part-time job at Marshalls at the mall in neighboring El Centro. Her husband, a former deputy sheriff, bolsters their household income through a part-time job at the church, where he does maintenance and janitorial work. They now make too much to qualify for welfare and food stamps, but they make too little to live comfortably. By the end of December, the family will no longer receive $560 in food stamps each month, and Espejo says she’s not sure what they’ll do.
“It’s hard to explain to the kids,” she said. “They ask if we can have milk, and I have to tell them there is no milk. They understand that it’s hard. They don’t ask for many things.”
Although she didn’t get any of the canned goods she had given away to others that evening, Espejo had reserved a box of crackers and cereal for her family. And there were plenty of leftover potatoes, which she would use to make soup.
“You feel better that people got something to eat that day,” she said, surveying the room of empty food cartons. “It’s nice to give hope that there is one more meal, even if it’s just potatoes.”