Monday, February 14, 2011

Rural hunger in Yolo County

These are trying economic times everywhere, including right here in our own backyard. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the unemployment rate for Yolo County stood at 12.4% for the period November 2009 to December 2010. To put this in perspective, the current national unemployment rate is estimated to be 9.0%. Further, while Yolo County does contain significant urban centers like West Sacramento, Davis, and Woodland, a considerable proportion of the county’s population lives in rural communities like Esparto and the town of Yolo.

I was therefore curious about the steps being taken to meet the needs of our struggling rural neighbors. As it happens, my wife, Frances, is the director of programs at the Food Bank of Yolo County, so I decided that hunger was the logical issue on which to focus my inquiry. While my relationship with Frances means that I have a certain familiarity with this issue simply through osmosis, the bulk of this blog is the product of a more detailed “interview” I had with her regarding the Food Bank’s outreach to rural populations.

I should begin with a general note about the nature of food banking. While Frances’ organization occasionally provides food directly to the people who need it, its principal function is as a clearinghouse – a nexus between donators and the local agencies that conduct the vast majority of food distribution (i.e. food pantries, soup kitchens, etc). The problem for rural communities is that these local agencies are overwhelmingly located in urban centers. For the 14.2% of rural households who qualify as food insecure, then, any efforts at obtaining assistance are hampered by the spatial issues we’ve discussed in class. When you’re already in a position where you have to choose between food on your table or gasoline in your car, a fifteen or twenty mile drive to your nearest food pantry can be prohibitive. This is to say nothing about the travel limits for people who don’t even own a car.

One response to this problem is the Food Bank’s Rural Food Delivery program. Under this program, the Food Bank begins by packing individual bags or boxes with approximately twenty-five pounds of food each. Volunteers then set up temporary distribution sites in rural communities, usually at a church, community center, or fire department. The response to this program has been considerable, with the Food Bank averaging 700 bags/boxes per distribution.

But has the lagging economy affected the Food Bank’s ability to conduct these programs? In other words, with charitable donations declining in general as people worry about saving more of their money, does the campaign against hunger find itself with fewer resources to combat a swelling enemy? Thankfully, the answer is no. First, the Food Bank receives no state funding, so California’s budget crisis has had no real effect. Further, while food donations have declined over the last five years, and demand for services is up, the Food Bank has actually enjoyed an increase in financial donations as a result of the Great Recession.

This certainly does not mean that the Food Bank is not in need of constant and continued support, but perhaps it does mean something about the issue of hunger. As Frances mentioned during our discussion, it’s at the very base of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, so maybe it has a particular resonance during difficult times. If people are going to donate, then, they’re more likely to focus on hunger than, say, their local symphony. For the unemployed and hungry in our community, this is at least something.


Jen Wickens said...

It is heartening to know that the Food Bank isn't suffering for donations during the Great Recession. The system for delivering food to rural community hubs makes such practical sense and should serve as a model for delivery of other critical services to those living in remote areas throughout California. I wonder: is the Food Bank so well-run because it operates outside of the inefficient and overburdened California governmental bureaucracy?

Sarah J said...

In response to both Jon's great post and Jen's question, I think the answer is yes-- small, charitable organizations can run better when the government is not involved, or at least when organizations are not fully dependent on the government for support. Having to keep a worthy cause afloat can inspire a community to work together, and often struggle together to make it happen. However, I think the Food Bank is really lucky in this instance to have weathered the financial storm, and I wonder if similar organizations in other rural areas have faired as well. Depending on government money is not ideal, especially during a recession, but I still think the government should make it a priority to support these types of organizations through thick and thin, because I'm sure there are some deeply impoverished areas where the donations really aren't rolling in. As with most situations, there should probably be a balance.

vlshaw said...

Good points about the distance between people having to choose between food and gas, I think that it is a real consideration for some. I am glad that someone is addressing the issue. Cheers to your wife for devoting time to those less fortunate.