Hunger Is Concentrated Here
Our county’s child food-insecurity rate is 27.3%.
Nestled in the fertile San Joaquin Valley; just 110 miles from Silicon Valley, lies Merced County, California, which is home to 271,579 people, and 21,870 of our children are hungry.
When you rank all 290 U.S. counties (who have more than 10,000 hungry children) by their child food-insecurity rate and the total number of hungry children.
Merced County is ranked 3rd highest in the nation - only Hidalgo and Cameron counties in Texas have more hungry children and a higher child food-insecurity rate than Merced County - according to the latest Map the Meal Gap report.
That report, released earlier this month by our partner organization Feeding America, collates data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Census Bureau, the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and the Current Population Survey to stitch together a portrait of food insecurity at the state and county levels.
The report showed that the face of hunger has changed, and so has its address.
While hunger is sometimes painted primarily as an urban problem, Feeding America’s research shows that rural communities are overrepresented among the neighborhoods most affected.
Rural counties make up 63 percent of all (3,141) U.S. counties. Of the nation’s most food-insecure counties (the top 10 percent), 76 percent are rural.
Furthermore, a full 86 percent of the nation’s most food-insecure counties for children are classified as rural.
Merced County is most certainly rural; with our long growing season and fertile soil, along with some of the largest concentrations of fruit and nut farms and dairies in the United States.
Our spring tapestry is colored by sprays of peach and nectarine petals, pink bouquets of apricot blossoms, and a white blaze of almonds, plums, and apples.
Our tree-shaded country roads, dotted with farm stands overflowing with fresh produce; picked from local farms - deep with family roots and tradition - portrays a beautiful rural agricultural community.
But, many people do not realize underneath this beauty lies a difficult and persistent struggle with hunger.
So often, we read and hear about the dire statistics related to our challenges here in Merced County and throughout the Central Valley. So much so, that many of us (myself included) have become a little desensitized to the reality of life here for tens of thousands of our neighbors.
Rural communities, like Merced County, are (and have been) facing a perfect storm of issues that contribute to our challenges with hunger. Those primary issues include concentrated poverty, unemployment, per capita income and the rising cost of nutritious foods.
To illustrate the gravity of the challenges faced by our neighbors and our children, it’s helpful to put the statistics related to those challenges into a comparable national perspective.
There are 3,141 counties in the United States, and 595 of them have populations of more than 99,999.
Of those 595 counties:
· Merced County had the 4th highest unemployment rate for 2016 at 10.5%.
· Merced County had the 12th highest poverty rate at 25.9%.
· Merced County ranked as the 12th lowest income per capita at $18,177.
· And, as previously stated, Merced County’s child food-insecurity rate/population is the 3rd highest in the nation.
Having grown up in Northern Appalachia along the West Virginia border, I am familiar with what impoverished communities looked like then and now. Often, Appalachia is referred to as the epicenter of poverty – and rightly so.
However, statistically speaking, our neighbors are facing more collective challenges here than any other part of the country.
For instance, of the ten U.S. counties (with populations over 99,999) that had the highest unemployment rate for 2016, seven of them were Central Valley Counties – Tulare, Merced, Kern, Kings, Fresno, Madera and Stanislaus – respectively.
Similarly, of the top 31 counties in the nation with the highest child food-insecurity rates and those that had more than 10,000 hungry children. The Central Valley represented seven of those spots – Merced, Tulare, Fresno, Kings, Kern, Madera and Stanislaus – respectively.
The Central Valley also had 3 of the top 17 most impoverished counties and 3 of the 12 lowest income per capita counties.
Look across the communities served by the Merced County Food Bank during the summer months and you will see sweet potatoes, dairies, almonds, and tomatoes as far as the eye can see.
How can it be that in this fertile, flourishing agricultural community, there are 90,000 people facing hunger; including nearly 22,000 children?
It’s a cruel irony that our neighbors and their children can be malnourished amid forests of trees running to the horizon. But, few are aware that communities like ours are often the hardest hit by hunger and food insecurity.
Like most of the new American hungry, our neighbors don’t face a total absence of food but the gnawing fear that the next meal can’t be counted on – i.e. food insecurity.
Food insecurity means – not having reliable access to a sufficient quantity of affordable, nutritious food.
Food insecurity can be seen as more of a hidden hunger, because the people that experience it often still have a house and a car, yet due to an outstanding circumstance, they could have lost the ability to maintain their lifestyle. In these cases, many people start making trade-offs that involve facing hunger versus paying for transportation, housing, medications, and other bills that they need to sustain.
Chances are good that if you picture what hunger looks like, you don’t summon an image of someone that looks like the 15,000 – 18,000 people we serve each month. The image of hunger in America today differs markedly from Depression-era images of the gaunt-faced unemployed scavenging for food on urban streets. Today, more working people and their families are hungry because wages have declined while other costs have risen.
For example, recent data from USDA and the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that while wages stayed basically stagnant between 2012-2016, the consumer cost index went up 4.5%. During the same period, food costs rose 6.1% and housing and medical costs rose 9.5% and 11.7% respectively.
That data also showed that in 2015, households in the middle-income bracket spent an average of $5,799 on food, representing 12.4 percent of income, while the lowest income households spent $3,767 on food, representing 33 percent of income.
When faced with a limited budget and hunger, bills go unpaid because, when push comes to shove, food wins out. You aren’t going to let your child or your family starve.
The added complication of having a limited budget and a family to feed, also forces people to choose less nutritious food in favor of more filling foods.
Numerous times I’ve heard people say “If they’re really hungry, then how can they be overweight?” The answer is that low-income people are nearly forced into making trade-offs between food that’s filling; but not nutritious, and, as a result, are actually contributing to obesity. For many of the hungry in our community, the extra pounds that result from a poor diet are collateral damage—an unintended side effect of hunger itself.
One comment that illustrates what I’ve seen here over the last 18 months came from Tracie McMillan, author of The American Way of Eating, where she said…
“To witness hunger in America today is to enter a twilight zone where refrigerators are so frequently bare of all but mustard and ketchup that it provokes no remark, inspires no embarrassment. Here dinners are cooked using macaroni-and-cheese mixes and other processed ingredients from food pantries, and fresh fruits and vegetables are eaten only in the first days after the SNAP payment arrives.
Here you’ll meet hungry farmhands and retired schoolteachers, hungry families who are in the U.S. without papers and hungry families whose histories stretch back to the Mayflower. Here pocketing food from work and skipping meals to make food stretch are so common that such practices barely register as a way of coping with hunger and are simply a way of life.”
Her notions that hunger: (1) Is just accepted now. (2) We eat more processed foods than ever. (3) That low-income people can only afford fresh fruits and vegetables when subsidized by the government. (4) Does not discriminate. Are all accurate – based on my experience.
Hunger and poverty are indiscriminate, but they seem to effect children at substantially higher rates than others.
For example, based on 2015 US Census school data for children aged 5 – 17, children in our communities are under siege by poverty.
Nationwide, there are nearly 13,200 school districts. Of those, there are 2,771 with more than 25,000 children attending them.
The poverty rate for those schools ranged from 52.45% to 1.84%.
Here’s how our communities compared against the rest of the country and CA.
· Merced City Elementary ranked 44th at 42.05% (the 4th highest in CA)
· Atwater Elementary ranked 131st at 36.45% (15th highest in CA)
· Los Banos Unified ranked 174th at 34.76% (22nd highest in CA)
· Merced Union High School ranked 246th at 32.43% (29th highest in CA)
In summary, both our elementary aged children and our children in high school are experiencing poverty rates higher than 90% of their peers – with over 1 in 3 school-aged children experiencing poverty – which goes hand-in-hand with hunger.
So, with all that said. What can we do as a community to fight hunger?
In a nutshell – support the Merced County Food Bank through your donations, time or food.
We are working hard to increase the quality and quantity of the food available to the low-income community. This year, we increased the amount of fresh produce in our distribution network by over 1,000,000 pounds.
We are working with all of our partners to reduce the amount high sodium, sugar and processed foods donated.
We are partnering with numerous Merced County departments to help provide more resources to seniors, increase outreach for CalFresh, and reduce food waste.
We have also realigned our priorities to not only feed people, but to integrate, facilitate and advocate for other organizations – who’s programs and services address hunger’s underlying and related issues.
Over the coming year, our primary focus area will be directly addressing child hunger.
One of the first projects underway is the development of pilot programs for a backpack program for hungry children.
The Kids Backpack Program will provide weekend food packages to chronically hungry elementary school students from low-income households who are at risk of hunger over the weekend when free school meals are unavailable. Every Friday afternoon students will discretely be given a bag of food which is tucked into their backpacks. Each bag contains enough food to see the students through the weekend, and the discreet distributions remove the stigma that might be attached to the program.
We are trying to raise $50,000 to launch this program this fall. If you have not yet donated to the Food Bank, we encourage you to support this project and help us feed our children.
Donations can be sent to Merced County Food Bank at 2000 West Olive Ave. Merced, CA. 95348. To learn more about us, go to www.MMCFB.org – where you can also donate online if you prefer.