One in Five Alameda County Residents Now Relies on Food Bank Assistance

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Alameda County Community Food Bank study reveals drastic measures residents are taking to make ends meet, such as “choosing between food and medicine” or “watering down food”

Hunger is on the rise in one of America’s wealthiest areas.

One-in-five Alameda County residents – more than 311,000 individuals annually – receives food assistance from Alameda County Community Food Bank, according to a major national survey released today. The quadrennial “Hunger in America” 2014 study commissioned by Feeding America, the national network of Food Banks, showed that the percent of Alameda County residents seeking assistance from food banks is outpacing that of all Americans – even while the nationwide percentage has increased. The study also revealed a number of measures Alameda County residents are forced to employ in order to feed themselves and their families.

While 1 in 7 total Americans now relies on Food Banks, hunger in Alameda County has become even more prevalent: rising presently to 1 in 5 residents, from 1 in 6 in 2010. Children and those over 50 years of age – our community’s most vulnerable age groups – account for nearly two-thirds of all Food Bank clients. Overall, food from Alameda County Community Food Bank is distributed to individuals 61,877 times in a typical week – and more than 3.2 million times annually.

In one of the study’s more shocking findings, 85 percent of Food Bank clients are food insecure – meaning they aren’t consistently able to access enough food for a healthy life. The study also found that two-thirds of client households (66 percent) have incomes that fall at- or below the federal poverty level, while 42 percent have annual incomes of $10,000 or less. The effects of such low-levels of income are amplified by the high cost of living in Alameda County, which is 32 percent higher than the national average.

“So often, we wonder how a story this tragic could describe one of the world’s most affluent countries,” said Suzan Bateson, executive director, Alameda County Community Food Bank. “But $15 billion in cuts to safety net programs, stagnant wages, economic recovery that hasn’t benefited low-income workers, and skyrocketing costs of living have created this new reality. We may have seen it coming, but it’s no less shocking – especially when we now see what people are forced to do to get by.”

Untenable Choices
The combination of high cost of living and fewer resources for low-income residents is forcing food bank clients to make difficult choices just to get by. The study sheds light on a number of purchasing tradeoffs Alameda County households make in order to pay for food or other critical expenses, including:

  •     More than half of client households (52 percent) chose between paying for food and paying for medicine/medical care in the past 12 months. 16 percent faced this choice every month.
  •     Nearly half of client households (46 percent) chose between paying for food and paying rent/mortgage. One-in-five (21 percent) faced this choice every month.
  •     More than half of client households chose between paying for food and paying for utilities. Nearly one-third (29 percent) faced this choice every month.

Furthermore, almost two-thirds of client households (63 percent) reported using coping strategies to ensure they had enough food to eat. Among the most notable tactics:

  •     Buying the cheapest food available, regardless of health (74 percent of clients who employed coping strategies).
  •     Eating expired food (52 percent).
  •     Buying food in dented or damaged packages (40 percent).
  •     Watering down food or drinks to make them last longer (36 percent).

Claire, 46, and her husband – both clients of Alameda County Community Food Bank – admit to sometimes skipping meals so that their children, ages 6 and 10 won’t have to. Still, they regularly employ coping strategies to provide for their children: “Every little penny needs to be stretched. It has become second nature to shop the way I do. I look for buy-1-get-1-free deals, reduced price items, and always buy off-brand. I water down condensed milk, because regular milk is too expensive and doesn’t last long enough. My kids need milk no matter what.”

Food insecurity’s effect on health
The direct links between health and adequate nutrition cannot be overstated. Food insecurity is directly linked to chronic conditions, which account for 75 percent of U.S. health spending.

The Hunger in America study explored the prevalence of diet-related illness in client households, as well as household ability to cover medical expenses. Key findings include:

  •     Nearly one-in-five (18 percent) report at least one member of their household is in poor health
  •     One-in-five households (21 percent) have a member with diabetes
  •     39 percent of households have a member with high blood pressure
  •     More than one-quarter of households (27 percent) have outstanding medical bills to pay, while one-third (33 percent) lack health insurance of any kind, including Medical

While these findings shed a particularly bleak picture of the health of food bank clients, it’s worth noting that Alameda County Community Food Bank clients are less likely than food bank clients nationally to report household members with diabetes (33 percent) or hypertension (58 percent).

Serving 20 percent of residents, Alameda County Community Food Bank recognizes it plays a significant role in the overall health of the county, and therefore has a long-standing commitment to providing the healthiest food options available. The Food Bank boasts one of the most aggressive nutrition policies among food banks nationwide, including becoming the first food bank in the nation to cease distribution of soda, and replacing distributed poundage with farm-fresh fruits and vegetables. The Food Bank also actively seeks partnerships to take a more proactive role in the health of our community, including leading the Morgan Stanley Healthy Oakland network, which launched July 2014.

Older residents seeking help in greater numbers
Among selected demographics, the Hunger in America study revealed an increase in Food Bank use by one of our community’s most vulnerable demographics: seniors and older Americans. According to the findings, residents over 50 years old now make up more than one-third (36 percent) of the Food Bank’s clients. The need is only expected to rise, given Alameda County’s senior population will grow significantly over the next decade and a half.

“The need among seniors here is enormous. So many of us are in a grey area where nobody sees our suffering,” says Jas, 59. She and her husband Ed, 61, live on a dwindling savings account and Ed’s minimum wage part-time job. Even after moving to ease skyrocketing cost of living, the couple is still forced to stretch every dollar. “I never buy cleaning supplies – I use baking soda and vinegar. I only shop at neighborhood markets, because grocery stores are out of our budget. We water down juice and soup. We cut the internet service from our home not long ago, because we couldn’t afford it anymore.”

Also of note: nearly one-quarter of households (23 percent) include grandparents who have a responsibility to care for grandchildren who live with them.

Ending Hunger in our Community
In 2013 the Food Bank implemented a 5-year strategic plan with the goal to provide 90 million meals annually by 2018 – enough for one meal every day for every food insecure resident of Alameda County. Many of the Hunger in America findings underscore how critical the tactics outlined in the Food Bank’s strategic plan are:

  •     Improving access to- and participation in CalFresh (Food Stamps): Despite an increase in CalFresh participation since the 2010 study (26 percent, up from 17 percent), participation in California and Alameda County still remains very low . Of those not receiving CalFresh, nearly half (45 percent) have never applied. The Food Bank’s CalFresh outreach department was the first of its kind nationally in 2003 and is a blueprint for programs nationwide. With expertise in five languages, the Food Bank’s CalFresh outreach department helped 3,500 households apply for benefits in FY14, generating $21 million in economic stimulus for Alameda County.
  •     Creating systems change: A nationally recognized advocacy department leads the Food Bank’s commitment to effecting long-term solutions through policy and systems change. Legislative priorities for 2014 include supporting lifting the minimum wage and advocating for reinvestment of Supplemental Social Security Income (SSI) to above poverty-level rates, both of which would make incredible steps in lifting many Alameda County residents to self-sufficiency.
  •     Increasing access to healthy food options: The food we distribute impacts the health of those we serve. According to the study, the top food items desired by clients that they aren’t receiving by their food program are fresh fruits and vegetables (46 percent), meat and similar protein items (38 percent) and dairy products like milk or yogurt (28 percent). The Food Bank is committed to increasing food distribution by 5.5 percent annually with a priority on high nutrient value food. Every year, the Food Bank is committed to ensuring at least 50 percent of all food distributed is farm-fresh produce.

“Hunger is not just empty cupboards in a neighbor’s home,” adds Bateson. “It’s a shared community problem. From programs that are no longer meeting needs, to the widening performance gap of children sitting in the same classroom, Alameda County’s rising food insecurity threatens to further disrupt the everyday functions of a healthy and stable community. This problem affects each and every one of us – and solving it is critical to our shared prosperity. We’re excited to partner with our community to end hunger in Alameda County. ”


About Alameda County Community Food Bank
Since 1985, Alameda County Community Food Bank has been at the forefront of hunger relief efforts in the Bay Area. Last year, the Food Bank distributed the equivalent of 23 million meals. More than half of the food distributed was farm-fresh produce. The Food Bank serves 1 in 5 Alameda County residents by distributing food through a network of 240 food pantries, soup kitchens, and other community organizations, as well as direct-distribution programs including Children’s Backpack and Mobile Pantry. For seven consecutive years, Alameda County Community Food Bank has received Charity Navigator’s top rating — Four Stars — ranking the organization among the top 2 percent of charities nationwide. Learn more at

About Feeding America
Feeding America is a nationwide network of 200 food banks that leads the fight against hunger in the United States. Together, we provide food to more than 37 million people through food pantries and meal programs in communities throughout America. Feeding America also supports programs that improve food security among the people we serve; educates the public about the problem of hunger; and advocates for legislation that protects people from going hungry. Individuals, charities, businesses and government all have a role in ending hunger. Donate. Volunteer. Advocate. Educate. Together we can solve hunger. Visit Find us on Facebook at or follow us on Twitter at

About Hunger in America 2014
Hunger in America 2014 was conducted using rigorous academic research standards and was peer reviewed by a technical advisory team including researchers from American University, University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana and the Urban Institute. Nationally, confidential responses were collected on electronic tablets by 6,000 trained volunteer data collectors.
The study was funded by The Howard G. Buffett Foundation.

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Michael Altfest
Alameda County Community Food Bank
+1 (510) 635-3663 Ext: 330
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