No Signs of Improving Economy at Struggling Food Banks

Paul Ash, executive director of SF-Marin Food Bank, chats with employee Henry Randolph at the food bank in San Francisco. Donations at the bank are $500,000 short this year compared with last year. (Ericka Cruz Guevarra/KQED)

The good news is that parts of the economy may be improving. The bad news is that those improvements have lulled people into a false sense of security — even as many still struggle to make ends meet. That struggle is playing out at Bay Area food banks, where fundraising isn’t meeting demand.

Second Harvest Food Bank of Santa Clara and San Mateo counties is $6 million short of its $15 million goal in a year when the food bank has actually seen a 5-6 percent increase in people in need.

“That’s a little bit gulp-inducing,” said Second Harvest Food Bank CEO Kathy Jackson. “The truth is that with all the good news about the economy, the concern is that the community doesn’t realize that there are actually more people seeking help than what was true a year ago.”

Jackson attributed the increase in residents seeking help from the food bank to the skyrocketing cost of rent in Silicon Valley.

“The average rent in Silicon Valley is up 12 percent over last year,” said Jackson. “If your rent has gone up $300-$400, that may have been your food budget.”

The problem isn’t just in Silicon Valley, though. The San Francisco-Marin Food Bank is $500,000 short, compared with donations at the same time last year.

“The economy couldn’t be better in San Francisco,” said SF-Marin Food Bank executive director Paul Ash. “There’s no distractions, there’s no disaster somewhere that should pull people’s interest away, and we just are seeing a slower level of giving than we’ve seen in past years.”

In Alameda County, where Oakland recently ascended to the fourth- most-expensive rental market in the U.S., Alameda County Community Food Bank’s communications manager Michael Alfest hesitates to say things are going well.

“The next few days are critical days of the year for us,” said Alfest. “This time of year really drives us to serve our community well into 2016. After New Year’s we won’t see the kind of donations we see during the holidays.”

Currently one in five Alameda County residents rely on food banks, surpassing the national average.

“We’re going to see the same struggles, if not even greater struggles for quite some time,” said Alfest.

At least one food bank says it’s doing OK. The Food Bank of Contra Costa and Solano County is on track as far as food donations go, but its monetary donations are still $400,000 short of a $3 million goal for 2015.

“Like the other food banks in the area, it is critical that we meet our goal to continue our services in 2016 at the level we have been,” said Lisa Sherrill, communications director at the food bank. “People have hunger at the top of their minds during the holidays.”

With more students on holiday break, Alfest and Jackson said the need for donations during this time of the year is all the more urgent. Both said that extended school closures are times when families are not able to rely on school lunches for their children.

“During holidays, every family has more things pulling at the available cash flow than at any other time for the year,” said Jackson.

The last few days of the year have historically served as a critical time for donations. Last year, the Alameda County Community Food Bank pulled in $330,000 in the final three days of the year. And it’s certainly hoping to repeat that this year.

To make a donation:

KQED’s Bay Area Bites also put together a volunteering and donation guide. Many local food banks accept donations year-round, with the need for help actually increasing again after the holidays.

Alfest said that sometimes the food donated during the holidays is left sitting in warehouses because of a shortage in volunteers in February and March.

“The community has always supported us and has never refused to step up,” said Jackson. “The campaign for us is really critical this year. … And most people are not expecting that right now.”

Author

Ericka Cruz Guevarra

Ericka Cruz Guevarra is an on-call interactive producer. She was an intern with NPR's Code Switch team in Washington, D.C., and was also KQED's first Raul Ramirez Diversity Fund intern. Ericka is also an alumna of NPR's Next Generation Radio project at member station KJZZ in Phoenix, and she currently studies international relations at San Francisco State University. You can follow her on Twitter @erkagvra or email her at ecruzguevarra@kqed.org

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