Second Harvest Food Bank Development and Marketing Officer Suzanne Willis remembers when her Watsonville-based food pantry was serving about 55,000 people monthly, providing them with parcels of fresh produce and pantry staples.
This was early in 2020, before the Covid-19 pandemic hit, prompting widespread business closures in March. After that, the number climbed to approximately 88,000—an increase of 60%.
Part of the problem is that every year Santa Cruz County’s tourism and agricultural jobs dry up. That means families need help to feed themselves and to survive, even in a year without a pandemic.
“If you’re spending everything you have on rent and medical and gas, you don’t have the funds for food,” Willis says. “A lot of the work we’re trying to do is make sure people have access to the fresh produce, the lean proteins and the whole grains they need, but also the knowledge on how to use it.”
UC Berkeley sociology professor David Harding agrees that workers in tourist industries often face dueling vulnerabilities: They work in boom-or-bust economies, in areas with a high cost of living.
Harding says the pre-pandemic economy was actually pretty good at the start of 2020, in terms of markers like unemployment. But the U.S. generally has high levels of economic inequality compared to other wealthy democratic countries. So many Californians were already in a precarious spot.
“Our economy is one that, even in the best of times, many working and middle-class families are living paycheck-to-paycheck and aren’t able to prepare for a time like this when the economy goes south,” says Harding, whose research interests include poverty, inequality, urban communities, race, and the criminal justice system. “If people have to shelter-at-home and businesses are closed, it doesn’t take long before people are struggling to meet their basic material needs. And we’re seeing that.”
Sure enough, Willis says that during the Great Recession of 2008 and 2009, Second Harvest’s numbers jumped from 30,000 people picking up food per month to 50,000, and they never went down. Then this year, staffers and volunteers watched demand soar past that level. Willis fears that a similar pattern will emerge in the wake of the pandemic—and that demand will remain high for years to come.
Second Harvest is one of 40 nonprofits participating in the sixth annual Santa Cruz Gives holiday giving campaign, sponsored by Good Times.
In Santa Cruz County, information compiled by the nonprofit Feeding America shows that 10% of residents were food insecure, or hungry, in 2018.
A report last year by UCSC’s Blum Center on Poverty, Social Enterprise and Participatory Governance and Second Harvest painted a grim picture of hunger in Santa Cruz County. The report showed that some 83,000 residents were living in households earning less than $50,000 per year. Among these, 43% of food assistance needs went unmet in 2017-18, forcing families to seek out cheaper, less nutritious options.
And according to state data, the share of Santa Cruz County households receiving CalFresh food assistance climbed 22% between February and June.
NEEDING THE WAY
The effect of the pandemic on food security came swiftly. In a study released in the spring, researchers at Northwestern University found that food insecurity doubled in April 2020 and tripled for families with children.
In subsequent analyses, the researchers found that the troublingly high levels held steady into the summer, and that Black and Hispanic children remained much more likely to be food insecure than white kids were.
Willis says the struggles of hungry families are often intertwined with housing insecurity, job insecurity and all forms of social, racial and economic injustices.
“All of it ties in together, and it all has this snowball effect on a person who maybe is kind of making it, and all of a sudden you throw in a broken car or a cancer diagnosis or something; that is the kind of thing that will throw a family on the edge completely over it,” Willis says.
In general, Harding thinks it can be easy for many Americans to lose sight of what social scientists really mean when they talk about poverty. The typical definition of poverty, whether to a government agency or to an academic, is that someone’s income falls below a threshold, but what that really means is that someone doesn’t have enough money to to pay for their very basic needs—food and housing. The resulting consequences can be devastating, especially as they fall on the nation’s kids.
“They’re pretty severe. If you’re thinking about children, it’s going to be influencing their social and emotional development. It’s going to be impacting their ability to apply themselves in school,” explains Harding, who says that initial rounds of federal stimulus helped, but the benefits wore off.
These problems extend far and wide, including to students at the state’s public universities, despite California’s efforts to expand services.
According to a report by the University of California Office of the President, at least 47% of student respondents from UCSC were found to be food insecure in three surveys since 2016. Those figures were a few percentage points higher than ones for the UC system as a whole.
In May, the California Student Aid Commission (CSAC) conducted a survey of more than 70,000 students to understand how the pandemic has affected them. The survey found that more than seven in ten students had lost at least some of their income.
In short, the pandemic pushed the everyday crises that many California college students face from “steady” to “extreme,” explains CSU East Bay’s Darice Ingram.
Ingram coordinates the Helping Our Pioneers Excel (HOPE) program, which oversees a food pantry and assistance for struggling student renters, while responding to students in crisis. Ingram has been helping educate low-income students about how they may qualify for CalFresh and helping them apply. HOPE additionally provides Instacart credits to those who don’t have enough groceries. And the program has been connecting students who moved out of the area for distance learning with resources in their regions.
At least 30% of Cal State East Bay students are now food insecure, Ingram says, although she adds that the true states of hunger, poverty, and homelessness can all be difficult to measure and track.
“College students just find a way to make it happen, not realizing that they’re in crisis, because they’re college students,” she says. “They’re like, ‘I gotta go to school, so I gotta make this happen. I’ll stay at my friend John’s on Tuesday, and on Wednesday, I’ll stay over here, and on Thursday, I’ll stay in my car.’ But they didn’t identify as being homeless.”
COMING IN HANDY
At Watsonville’s Pajaro Valley Loaves and Fishes, Director Ashley Bridges remembers how quickly everything changed this year.
Volunteers saw an initial 20% increase in the number of people coming to the organization’s weekday lunch program—equating to about 150 people per day—immediately after the Covid-19 crisis began, she says.
While that number has since dropped to around 600 people per week, the number of families that receive food from the group’s Pantry Program has nearly doubled. Bridges says 1,500 people per month receive food assistance, with many needing help twice a month.
“The pandemic definitely hit our community really hard,” she says.
There has been a positive side, she says, for nonprofits like Loaves and Fishes, which is participating in Santa Cruz Gives as well. The pandemic has allowed the Watsonville group to connect with other local organizations that are helping out, such as the Community Action Board of Santa Cruz County, and Live Earth Farm, which provides produce.
“I personally have been really grateful for how the community has come together to help the people we serve,” she says.
Some of the underlying problems may be even worse in Monterey County, where one in three children goes hungry, and more than 33% of students are homeless, says Monterey County Food Bank Executive Director Melissa Kendrick.
“Our numbers have quadrupled. We’re just bracing for tremendous hardship,” she says, adding that Monterey County has one of the highest rates of type-2 diabetes in the state. The region has to do better on those health outcomes, she explains, and the only way to improve is through healthy eating.
Part of the challenge, she says, is the sheer size of the county, which encompasses more than 3,770 square miles. With tourist destinations such as Fisherman’s Wharf and vast agricultural areas, it includes a wide range of economic strata.
When the pandemic hit, Kendrick says, many of the county’s 160 nonprofit organizations were forced to close. Of those, only 60 remain open, many with limited services.
As a result, the Monterey County Food Bank offers 50 food distributions per week, each of which sees from 200-800 families regularly, Kendrick says.
“We have had to completely reimagine how we do things,” she says.
Visit santacruzgives.org for information on how to donate to Second Harvest Food Bank, Pajaro Valley Loaves and Fishes and other participating nonprofits.