Every year just before Thanksgiving television crews descend on food banks and pantries and show needy families receiving generous amounts of food. Newspapers feature photographs on their front pages of people getting turkeys. Radio stations interview food recipients and relief agency staff to report how much food is being given away. Churches and charities promote food drives. A few weeks later, more food drives are organized, radios stations present features on hunger during the holidays, newspapers display photos of homeless people, and TV channels exhort viewers to bring food to their parking lots before Christmas.
After Christmas the news pivots to state and national news, college football bowls and crime. Hunger is forgotten, the homeless fade from sight and relief food agencies retire to the background. Many shut-ins among the elderly and disabled still need meals delivered to them. Families with little or no income still need food. Homeless people look for hot meals. Farm workers whose savings have run out borrow money to buy food until work resumes in the late spring. Paychecks and food stamps buy food only three weeks a month. Some people cope with food shortages by rationing food or skipping meals.
The generous Christmas food gifts are a dim memory. Thanksgiving is months away. The hustle for food is relentless. Lines two blocks long form at the food pantries. People arrive at 5:30 am for food distributions that start at 9:00 am. Competition and anxiety dominate the search for food. Hope of food security is tenuous. Too often depression trumps hope. There is plenty of drama in the off months. It is dark and desperate. The glossy pictures of families getting free turkeys, the notion of abundance, the triumph of good will are all absent. Hunger is year round.
Our farms produce millions of pounds of chicken, peaches and lettuce every year. Grocery stores stock over 100,000 competitively priced items in Fresno and Clovis. Local pantries and charities give away over 22 million pounds of food a year. But when food is distributed at a new sites, lines two blocks long start forming at 5:30 am. Tens of thousands of people whose children could receive breakfast and lunch at school ration food a few days per month. Many of these people are eligible for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits. How much need for food is there? If we knew how many pounds of food are needed, when and where it is needed and the kinds of food needed, our relief food agencies could make timely purchases to meet people’s needs. Fresno Hunger Count developed a survey to provide this information.
In 2014 Fresno Hunger Count sent 40 surveyors into neighborhoods that had a median income of 200% of the Federal Poverty Level or less in Fresno and Clovis to talk to people one on one about food shortages. They interviewed over 42,000 heads of households, more than half of whom said they experienced food shortages in the previous 12 months. Surveyors asked questions only about food shortages. They did not ask the name of the respondents, their legal status or eligibility for food stamps or other assistance. They did, however, write down their addresses so that food shortage information could be reported by location.
The 2014 Fresno Hunger Report features heat maps that show where hunger is the most severe in each of the 75 census tracts where the survey was conducted. Relief food agency officials can see where the hunger is block by city block. A table showing how many pounds of proteins, carbohydrates, fats and fresh fruits and vegetables are needed each month is displayed along with the heat map. Relief food personnel can readily see from the map and table where food is needed, when it is needed, the quantities that are needed and the kinds of foods that are needed. The information in the hunger report enables relief food agencies to plan timely food purchases to provide the right kind of food when and where it is needed and in the quantities needed. Besides providing detailed information for planning food purchases, the hunger report also projects a sense of scale. Twenty-six million pounds of food are needed to adequately nourish the 64,388 people in food insecure households in the survey area. The amount of food needed exceeds the present relief food supplied. There needs to be a big increase in CalFresh participation, Women Infants and Children (WIC) funding and other public assistance as well as a near doubling of private sector food relief to deliver the 26 million pounds of food needed according to the report.