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Better, Fuller Plates

Staff Perspective Jasneet Sharma

Food is a central part of our lives during Thanksgiving and the holiday season. It’s also an opportune time to reflect upon the issue of hunger and food insecurity that affects millions of people across the country who struggle with not having enough food, are unable to afford a balanced and nutritious diet, or are unsure when or where their next meal will be.

Food insecurity is defined by the United States Department of Agriculture as the lack of access to enough food for an active, healthy life. It exists when someone’s ability to obtain and prepare enough nutritious food is uncertain or not possible.

In 2015, one in eight U.S. households was food insecure.[1] This has serious health implications. People who are food insecure are more likely to depend on processed, calorie dense foods that are inexpensive, filling, and readily available. When people don’t eat enough fruits, vegetables, and other healthy foods, this creates nutrient deficiencies and increases the incidence of chronic conditions such as diabetes, obesity, and heart disease.

The impact of food insecurity and poor nutrition on children is even more troubling. Compared to food secure children, food insecure children are “at least twice as likely to report being in fair or poor health.”[2] Food insecurity in children also leads to a higher frequency of chronic illnesses, poor academic performance, delays in social, emotional, and cognitive development. In San Mateo County, 16% of children are food insecure.

Whether someone is at risk of food insecurity depends on his/her:

  • Economic Access: financial resources or income to purchase healthy, nutritious foods
  • Physical Access: access to quality and culturally appropriate affordable foods
  • Informational Access: knowledge of nutrition and cooking and the ability to prepare healthy meals

People living 200% below the federal poverty line are at high risk of food insecurity. In San Mateo County, 10% of adults living below 200% of the federal poverty level are food insecure. In some census tracts in the cities of East Palo Alto/Menlo Park/Redwood City area, San Mateo, South San Francisco, and Daly City, 30% or more individuals living below 200% of the federal poverty level are challenged with not having enough food.

Federal food assistance programs like Calfresh provide some safety net for the food insecure populations by offering benefits to income-eligible individuals and households to purchase food and stretch their food budgets. However, only half of eligible food insecure individuals in San Mateo are currently enrolled in CalFresh. In addition, 30-40% of San Mateo County residents are “living in the gap” where they are food insecure, but ineligible for food assistance programs. This is primarily because they earn more than the income threshold to qualify for food assistance programs set by the federal poverty line, but not enough to cover their daily needs and expenses i.e. an annual household income of $47,700 for a family of four to qualify for food assistance programs versus a household income of $85,090 for a family of four to meet one’s self-sufficiency needs and pay for housing, transportation, childcare, insurance, food, medications, etc. Food budgets are being continuously squeezed due to high housing costs which have increased nearly 70% in the last five years and the rising costs of living, which creates financial instability that pushes people further towards food insecurity.

Food insecurity is also impacted by the local food environment. Creating vibrant, complete neighborhoods where the healthy choice is the easy choice helps improve food security. However, San Mateo County has a greater number of stores selling low priced, unhealthy foods compared to healthy foods. On average, only 20-30% of food stores in low-income neighborhoods provide quality and affordable healthy foods. This lack of access to healthy foods impacts food purchasing, consumption and dietary intake patterns among low income households and federal food assistance program participants – and further exacerbates food insecurity and health.

Healthy food is the foundation of good health. In San Mateo County, public agencies, food banks, and philanthropic organizations are all working diligently to identify and provide resources to individuals and households that are food insecure and improve access to healthy food. A workgroup comprised of organizations that serve residents most in need of food resources and related San Mateo County departments has been established to address the issue of hunger in San Mateo County. The End Hunger Workgroup is currently reviewing State and local level data on food assistance program usage, the local food environment and other factors that impact food insecurity and best practices for addressing hunger and food insecurity. The workgroup will also explore action steps and a coordinated approach to address hunger in San Mateo County. See the recent presentation given to the workgroup here. Based on best practice research, these could potentially include:

  • Increasing collaboration between public agencies and non-profit organizations to outreach and increase enrollment in food assistance programs.
  • Increasing participation by students in free and reduced school breakfast and lunch programs.
  • Offering breakfast and lunch to children and youth at the libraries, summer camps, community centers and other locations around the city during the summer months.
  • Screening for food insecurity (the San Mateo County Medical Center Pediatric team will be screening  patients for food insecurity as part of the upcoming Staying Healthy Assessment).
  • Increasing healthy, fresh foods and produce and nutrition education to those in need.

This season, you can also consider volunteering at the food shelter or food bank in your community, donating food for those in need, or elevating the issue of hunger and food insecurity among your leaders. Learn more about the San Mateo County Food System Alliance that has been ground in San Mateo County since 2006 to create a healthier and more vibrant local food economy. You can also dig deeper into the issue of food insecurity in San Mateo County here. Together, we can continue to improve access to healthy, affordable food for all in San Mateo County.

[1] Coleman-Jensen, Alisha, Matthew P. Rabbitt, Christian Gregory, and Anita Singh. 2016a. “Household Food Security in the United States in 2015.” ERR-215. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service, September 2016.

[2] Gundersen, C., and Ziliak, J.P. Food Insecurity and Health Outcomes. Health Affairs, November 2015, vol. 34 no. 11.