From olive oil to walnuts, tomatoes to rice, Yolo County is known for its food production.
But while the bounty from the county’s fertile soil feeds people all over the world, that doesn’t necessarily mean Yolo’s own residents always have enough to eat.
In fact, one in six Yolo County residents is food insecure, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. That means they don’t have enough food to eat or enough income to ensure a balanced diet and the result is poorer physical and mental health, as well as increased risk of depression, diabetes and hypertension.
A recent study by the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research estimated 16,000 adults in the county struggle to put food on the table and households with children were particularly at risk.
“You see it everywhere,” said Kevin Sanchez, executive director of the Food Bank of Yolo County. “But rural areas are definitely impacted the most, and the most vulnerable are children and the elderly.”
Statewide, nearly 4 million adults were deemed food insecure and one in six low-income Californians were found to have “very low food security,” meaning they often had to cut their food intake and literally go hungry. That figure has doubled from one in 12 a decade ago.
“With the economy still in a slump,” said the study’s co-author Gail Harrison, “many families are grappling with difficult choices: ‘Do I pay the bills or buy food to feed my children?’
“In a state that is the nation’s breadbasket,” she added, “it’s sad to see that so many people don’t know where their next meal is coming from.”
The good news, the study found, is that safety net programs aimed at fighting hunger are quite effective — particularly the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, known in California as CalFresh (and formerly known as food stamps). People enrolled in the program did not experience the same increased food insecurity over the past decade that other segments of the population did.
The bad news: California ranks dead last among all 50 states in the percentage of eligible residents who sign up for the program, according to Yolo County Supervisor Don Saylor.
And of California’s 58 counties, only eight have lower CalFresh participation rates than Yolo, Saylor said.
Just over half of those eligible — 16,695 of 30,354 — in Yolo County participate in CalFresh, which has a net monthly income limit of $1,863 for a family of four.
Efforts at improving access to and participation in CalFresh have been underway for a while. The stigma attached was lessened when the old food stamps gave way to debit cards, and in the past year, California has done away with fingerprinting requirements and changed regular income verifications from every three months to every six months.
In 2009, Congress increased the nutrition assistance benefits by 17 percent as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.
Still, there are certain groups that are less likely than others to participate in the program: the elderly, the working poor and Latino families who worry about undocumented family members being deported.
When it comes to the latter group, there is definitely a fear, said Sanchez, “of being identified as illegal.”
In an effort to reach those populations, a newly formed group — Yolo County Food Connect — is spearheading a drive to increase participation in CalFresh.
The group, a collaborative effort that includes government, nonprofit, religious and educational participants from around the county, has put increasing participation in CalFresh near the top of an ambitious agenda aimed at reducing food insecurity in Yolo County.
In July, 60 people attended a CalFresh registration training and will now focus their efforts on outreach.
The benefit will go beyond just feeding the hungry in Yolo County. The nonprofit California Food Policy Advocates reports that more than $40 million in additional economic activity would be generated in Yolo County if everyone eligible for CalFresh were to participate.
And while efforts to reach the hungry through CalFresh ramp up, other agencies continue to do their part to lessen food insecurity in other ways.
The food bank, headquartered in Woodland, is now serving more than 20,000 Yolo County residents every month through partner agencies and at 75 distribution sites. And even with that large a population, Sanchez said, there is still a gap of as many as 15,000 hungry people that are not being reached by the food bank and its partners.
Those living in the most rural parts of the county are particularly impacted. A recent study by UC Davis students, Saylor said, identified “food deserts” throughout the county, where residents have to travel the furthest to find fresh food. Knights Landing, for example, has just two convenience stores, while more remote areas of the county don’t even have that. For those without easy access to transportation, that’s a critical issue in the fight against hunger.
The food bank focuses significant efforts on reaching those rural communities through its Rural Food Delivery program.
Throughout the month, volunteers gather at the Woodland warehouse to sort through the thousands of donated items coming in all the time and pack individual 25-pound boxes that include everything from baking soda, seasoning and spices to proteins, pastas and drinks which are then delivered to 22 rural sites throughout the county. Nearly 800 boxes are delivered every month.
The donations that fill those boxes are the product of the community’s generosity.
“The Davis community, in particular, has always been very generous,” Sanchez said. “And we hope they continue, because we need it.”
From school canned-food drives to donations from individual residents, businesses and community groups, not to mention area farmers and grocery stores, the food bank sometimes finds itself struggling to find room to store it all.
More refrigerated storage space is on the way though, Sanchez said, and that will help, particularly in achieving another food bank goal: providing healthier fresh food to low-income residents.
Sanchez said the food bank would like to work with area farmers and grocery stores to double the amount of fresh produce being distributed throughout the county. Doing so could go a long way toward tackling the high rate of obesity among low-income children. According to Yolo County Food Connect, 33 percent of low-income children between the ages of 2 and 4 are overweight or obese.
Food bank volunteers are already making inroads among some of the county’s younger residents, thanks to a “Kids Farmers Market” piloted at Whitehead Elementary School in Woodland this year. Whitehead was chosen in part because of the high percentage of students from low-income families.
“We took our produce truck, filled it with produce, brought a bunch of tables and went out (to Whitehead) and set it up just like a farmers market,” Sanchez said.
There were samples for tasting and students were given pretend money to shop for fruits and vegetables.
“It was the most amazing thing,” Sanchez said.
The children would carefully choose and pay for their items, then find a place on the grass to sit and chat while they munched. Most of their purchases — as much as 10 pounds of fresh fruit and vegetables — would leave with them at the end of the school day.
“This is food they might not have at home,” said Sanchez, “and they’re bringing it home to their families.”
Next year, the food bank plans to expand the kids farmers market to a couple more school sites and Sanchez hopes to see it at every school that needs it eventually.
At the same time, Davis Farm to School’s successful program is gearing up for a push into every school in Yolo County as well, with the same goal of getting healthier food to children in the form of school lunches and breakfasts.
Sanchez said the food bank will be working in concert with that effort, possibly helping with packing and distribution of food. And both the food bank and Farm to School are part of the newly formed Yolo County Food Connect, which aims to bring a countywide collaborative effort to dealing with food insecurity.
Other agencies participating in Food Connect include the Yolo County Department of Agriculture, Davis Community Meals, the Yolo County Children’s Alliance, First 5 Yolo, UCD and many more. The program plans a communitywide food security summit Oct. 16 at the UCD Conference Center.
To learn more about Food Connect and its plans, contact Saylor at [email protected] or (530) 757-5557. To donate to or volunteer with the Food Bank of Yolo County, visit http://www.foodbankyc.org or call (530) 668-0690.
— Reach Anne Ternus-Bellamy at [email protected] or (530) 747-8051. Follow her on Twitter at @ATernusBellamy