A glimpse of the recession at the Alameda County food bank

Jan 17, 2012

The cavernous building of the Alameda County Community Food Bank looks like an airplane hangar for the nearby Oakland Airport. Through the door of the community engagement center, with its bright orange awning, pallets of potatoes sit by empty donation barrels piled high to the ceiling. Volunteers busily bag produce. Giant walk-in refrigerators, the size of small houses, hum in the background.

The Alameda County Community Food Bank is a hub of distribution. Using a small army of volunteers, the food bank provides for over 300,000 meals each week, through afterschool programs, local food pantries, soup kitchens, childcare and senior centers throughout the county.

The bank also operates an emergency hotline to direct people to the nearest place to get emergency food. Jorge Rosales mans the emergency hotline at the food bank, but he also helps people apply for food stamps – a process that includes filling out an application over the phone, filling out different county documents, mailing said documents back and forth between the client and the food bank, and getting approval from the county. Rosales says the face of poverty has changed during the recession.

“We’re seeing everyone from families that were upper-middle class even and have lost very good jobs, and we’re also seeing a lot of seniors not able to live off of social security retirement,” he says. “So it’s not the typical face that a lot of people expect sometimes.”

In fact, in the past five years the number of people calling the emergency food hotline has tripled to over 36,000. The food bank has pioneered a program that quickly gauges a caller’s eligibility for food stamps. Rosales says the food bank processes about 200 food stamp applications each month. “If they are homeless or not living in a traditional home, we can help them to get some sort of verification… We can type that up for them and ask them to sign the document. We can meet them at a community center, senior center, a library where we host clinics if the mail is not convenient for them,” Rosales explains.

Food banks directly helping people get approved for food stamps is a relatively new concept. The Alameda County Community Food Bank began doing this in 2003, one of the first in California. Now others food banks nationwide are following that lead. Alameda County’s program is highly successful too: about 80% of their applicants are approved for food stamps.

Still, there are obstacles. Rosales says many myths and misconceptions surrounding foods stamps discourage people from ever applying, like the idea that you have to have children or be unemployed to qualify. There’s also the stigma of asking for food aid.

“It is not like welfare or general assistance,” says Rosales. “And it is a program not to be ashamed of… I think everyone, especially in this time period, might need a little more help.”

That sentiment is echoed by many of the food bank’s volunteers. Mary Carr comes in three times a week in exchange for a bag of food, which supplements her social security income. But she also wants to help others in need.

“Once you get the food home every week, it stocks your cabinets with the staples so then whatever money you don’t have to pay for those staples, it helps a lot,” she says.

Volunteers like Carr donate the equivalent of 29 full-time staff members each year. That’s helping to fill the gap created by cuts in government funding – but it’s not enough to combat what advocates call the perfect storm of food insecurity: decreased government funding, cuts to social safety net programs, and the growing need for food as people cope with the recession.

You can access the Alameda County Community Food Bank at 1-800-870-FOOD. Volunteers will help you figure out if you qualify for food stamps, or how to get food assistance.