Hundreds gather at family market for free fresh produce

Salinas residents gather early at the family market to get fresh produce for their meals. But the family market is not a typical farmers market like the ones that dot many California communities, especially during the summer months. The Food Bank for Monterey County hosts the family markets in communities throughout Monterey, including a July 27 distribution in the Vineyard Community Fellowship church in East Salinas.

Some senior citizens showed up as early as 5:30 a.m. one recent morning for the 10 a.m. distribution, though staff members said they always have enough food to give out to all the clients who need it. Some of the produce comes from local growers while other produce came from a trade with food banks in other counties.

Steve, a senior citizen from Salinas, waited toward the front of the line on the recent Friday morning. He said it was his second time coming to the family market after a friend told him about it.

“Mainly the produce,” he said, of his reason for attending the market. “There’s a lot of variety. I’m on a fixed income anyhow so it can prove to be a problem.”

The morning offerings included lettuce, green cauliflower, nectarines, peaches, onions, potatoes, strawberries, among other produce, and baked goods.

Including Steve, the food bank staff and volunteers expected to serve 300 to 400 families that day.

“We certainly have seen an increase,” said Leslie Sunny, the executive director of the Monterey-based food bank. “In the late part of 2008, it grew…not really gradually. It really hit in November 2008 and started to skyrocket.”

Sunny said the agency started serving more than 10,000 residents through the United States Department of Agriculture program each week, which distributes meat and cheese to low-income residents. The “Hunger in America” study released in 2010 estimated that the food bank serves 88,700 different clients each year, including families, senior citizens and children

The increasing numbers reflect a statewide trend. The UCLA Center for Health Policy and Research released the results of a study July 9 that found nearly 4 million Californians struggled to put food on the table during the economic downturn from 2007 to 2009.

In 2009, one in six low-income Californians had very low food security, according to the report, meaning they experienced multiple instances in which they had to cut their food intake and experienced hunger. The number is up from one in 12 low-income residents experiencing very low food insecurity in 2001.

The areas of California experience the highest rate of residents with food insecurity included the San Joaquin Valley, some Bay Area communities, as well as Shasta, Butte, Sutter, Yuba, Ventura, San Bernardino, Orange and Riverside counties.

In Monterey County, 43.2 percent of low-income families experienced food insecurity. The county with the highest rate included Contra Costa with 57.8 percent; Orange with 52.4 percent; Napa with 52.2 percent and Sonoma with 50.5. Other counties especially hard hit included areas of the San Joaquin Valley and some Bay area communities.

Some of the counties with the lowest rate included Placer, Siskiyou, Lassen, Trinity and Modoc with rates of 19 to 21 percent.

The study noted more married, employed individuals were at risk of food insecurity, including an increase from 29 percent to 40 percent of low-income married people and an increase from 28 percent to 43 percent of employed low-income people.

Sunny, of Monterey’s food bank, said the number of clients her agency serves has stabilized in recent months but it has not decreased. She has also seen a shift in the types of clients that have come seeking help in the last few years.

“We are seeing an increase in what we call the ‘new poor,’” Sunny said. “People called who were our vendors. We urge people to take the help – that is why we are here.”

She said for many families it can be hard to accept help.

Ian Anderson, the program manager for the Community Action Partnership of Kern, oversees the food bank distribution for a largely rural county that includes the city of Bakersfield. According to the UCLA report, Kern had a food insecurity rate of 33.9 percent among low-income residents.

One of the issues for the Kern food bank is the high cost of fuel to deliver food to the far reaches of the county’s more than 8,000 square miles. They need to use expensive, refrigerated box trucks to deliver the food, which can be costly to fuel and maintain, Anderson said. The food bank serves 117 distribution sites throughout the county.

Unlike the Monterey area, Anderson said the number of new clients continues to grow in Kern County. He said unemployment remains high in the region and the agency provides the only source of emergency food for many clients.

“There are a lot of people using it who never expected it,” Anderson said. “They don’t know how to access it…They are embarrassed to use it and they can slip through the cracks.”

Anderson said his staff and volunteers do try to connect residents with other resources, especially the Calfresh program, formerly known as food stamps.

The UCLA report found that those low-income residents who were enrolled in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, known as CalFresh, did not experience an increase in food insecurity. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 boosted SNAP benefits by 17 percent, according to the report. The subsidies are set to expire in 2013.

“Without the ARRC, many Californians would be in much deeper poverty,” said Gail Harrison, a UCLA professor and co-author of the study, in a policy brief. “And with millions of Californians still struggling economically, 2013 is too soon to consider ending this important life-support for our poorest residents.”

One of the reasons the researchers highlighted food insecurity as an important issue is the connection with health outcomes. Studies have found that those who experience it regularly have poorer health and are at increased risk of depression, mental health issues, as well as chronic diseases such as diabetes and hypertension.

Sunny said in recent years the food bank in Monterey has tried to find ways to increase the healthfulness of the food offered to clients.

“We live in the salad bowl,” she said, noting that the family market offers fresh produce to local families. “We also wanted to address the issue of obesity and diabetes with the people we serve.”

The Kern food bank also has increased its offerings of fresh produce through a “Dare to Share” program where they trade excess produce with other counties to increase the offerings.

“Say Fresno is able to procure strawberries,” Anderson said, adding that his agency might trade out pallets of non-perishable items from groceries for the produce. “They would give it to us for free or the cost of freight. It has significantly increased produce.”

Anderson and Sunny both noted that they struggle with finding new distribution sites to get out to residents throughout their counties. Sunny said they have outgrown some of their locations as the number of clients grew. Anderson reiterated the same concerns of limited parking when hundreds of clients show up at a site.

“The existing sites get overwhelmed for us out here in outlying areas,” Anderson said.

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