Fresno is blessed with many people of good will who want to help hungry people. When their churches or places of work have food drives or gather cash donations, they give what they can. Some employers and churches favor giving food donations; others emphasize cash donations. Which kind of giving provides better nutrition for the people who receive the food? Which one enables a person to give the most food?
Food banks and pantries often receive large quantities of food that they in turn give to recipients. In many cases, the hungry person who receives the food needs proteins or fresh fruit but gets carbohydrates; because that is what the charity got. One pantry received six pallets of Cheerios when it already had other carbohydrates such as day old bread, pasta and macaroni and cheese. Naturally, it stuffed a box of Cheerios in all its family bags. Affordable high fat proteins like bologna also went into the bags. If its donors had given more cash, it could have purchased higher quality, lean protein like canned tuna. Another charity gets an annual donation of 18,000 pounds of hot dogs, which, like bologna, are high in fat. Its clients eat lots of hot dogs in the weeks following the donation and months later as well, because the charity freezes some of the hot dogs. If this agency could get more cash donations, it could buy lean chicken for its recipients instead of relying on high fat hot dogs. And it could buy much more food than it would get from a food drive. In the case of the donated hotdogs and Cheerios, hungry people got what the agency received and not necessarily what they needed.
Some pantries provide lists of foods that their clients need to their donors, who may be church members, other churches, food retailers or food manufacturers. Good quality ground beef is obtained by one agency this way. One church provides the foods that another church requests for its pantry. Managing food donations this way can help get the food people actually need.
But a more effective way to match the food given away to the needs of the recipients is for the relief food agency to have enough money to buy the foods people need. The Community Food Bank buys 70% of the food its clients need with cash donations from individuals and businesses. Church pantries typically get cash donations from their congregations. Some of them get donations from businesses; others get grants. One pantry gets money from the church thrift shop. Pantries and charities also get cash donations from churches that take collections for them. With these funds, these agencies can buy food on sale at discount grocers and dollar stores. They can buy food for about one fourth the cost that a consumer would pay. Your cash donation will actually buy about four times as much food as you would, if you bought food for a food drive.
Fresno Hunger Count asked people which foods they needed and has made that information available to relief food agencies. If these agencies can raise enough money, they can buy the foods their clients they need; and they can buy a lot more food per dollar than and individuals can. Cash donations enable these organizations to maximize the nutrition they deliver to the hungry. Please give as much cash as you can to the food bank, charity or pantry of your choice.
Food banks and pantries give out bags of food that contain more foods like rice and pasta than tuna and peanut butter. The typical bag of food for a family of four has a loaf or two of bread, a box of cereal, a bag of rice, a box of macaroni and cheese, a can of tomatoes and a can of corn. The bag may also have a bag of dry beans, a jar of peanut butter and a small can of tuna. These bags provide a mother and three children eight to thirteen years of age enough food for two days.
The mother cooks the tomatoes and corn with the beans for lunch and dinner and uses the bread to make peanut butter and jelly and tuna sandwiches for lunch and toast for breakfast. Her children eat cereal for breakfast and snacks. Rice and macaroni and cheese accompany the beans for lunch and dinner.
To feed this mother and her children mostly carbohydrates and a few proteins for two days requires constant searching of ads for sales, numerous trips to the food bank and discount grocers, and countless emails and phone calls. Volunteers throughout Fresno and Clovis take time from their families to dedicate 30 to 40 hours a week to run pantries. They develop a good rapport with store managers to get notices of sales and food donations; they recruit volunteers to drive their own cars to pick up food, stock pantry shelves, put food into bags, and hand out the bags to families; and they network with the food bank and other pantries to either receive surplus donated food from them or give them their pantry’s surplus food.
At the center of their activity, of course, is getting the most food for the least money.
Pantry managers buy these foods from grocery outlets, discount grocers and dollar stores when they have sales. They work very hard to purchase food at steeply discounted prices. Eggs, chicken and red meats are too expensive to buy, even when they are on sale. Pantries buy dry beans and peanut butter instead of eggs and chicken; they buy tuna or franks instead of fresh meat.
When we see food bags bulging with bread, rice and cereal and only have dry beans and a small jar of peanut butter, it is because the carbohydrates are cheaper than proteins. Rice, for instance, is almost two times cheaper than dry beans and more than two and a half times cheaper than peanut butter. Determined to buy the most amount of food with the money they have, pantry managers pack plenty of carbohydrates and as many proteins they can afford into their bags. We don’t need to wonder where the proteins are. They’re still on the grocery store shelves.
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.