One out of every six residents in Alameda County is served by the Alameda County Community Food Bank. The non-profit agency partners with 275 member agencies to provide almost 50,000 people with food each week. In addition to working with soup kitchens and food pantries, the Food Bank’s Community Outreach Program helps eligible individuals and families apply for nutrition assistance programs, like CalFresh, formerly known as food stamps.
But the problem is, many people have no idea that they’re even eligible. So Calfresh is trying to reach out, and one place they’re doing that is at the Asian Branch of the Oakland Public Library. For nearly a decade, the Food Bank has been offering application assistance to some of Oakland’s most vulnerable residents: immigrants who are not native English speakers. The Food Bank’s multilingual outreach staff visit the bustling Chinatown library each month to provide counseling in Cantonese, Mandarin, and Vietnamese.
Patrons of all ages fill the single-story space: they’re browsing the shelves, reading Chinese language newspapers, using the computers, and socializing. It’s the busiest branch in the Oakland library system—located in the heart of Chinatown.
A heavily pregnant woman is sitting at a table resting her hands on her belly and listening intently to Kim Ly, a Community Outreach Associate with the Alameda County Community Food Bank.
The topic of their discussion is not books, it’s food; specifically, the application process to sign up for food stamps.
“I come here every month, one time for two hours to help the people over here at Oakland downtown,” Ly says. “Any question, any assistance they need, any help, they just come over and I can help.”
Ly’s a perfect fit for this job: at one of the most ethnically diverse libraries in the city, she can talk with just about everybody—in English, Mandarin, Cantonese, and Vietnamese.
“That’s why I can help a lot of people, and I’m very happy to help people, I’m very appreciate that I can come over to the community and talk to people, make people smile,” she says. “Many immigrant people, they have just arrived and they don’t have transportation and also they don’t know where to go, or who can help because of the language problem, so they really need help.”
Kim’s language skills allow her to connect with members of the East Bay Asian immigrant community who might not otherwise have the resources to apply for CalFresh.
Janet Cheung, the Head Librarian and Branch Manager, sees how important the library is as a resource, especially for new immigrants.
“For this branch, I think the special thing is because we have things in their home language and because we have staff who are multilingual on board, and we speak so many different Asian languages in here: that really brings that new immigrant community into this library and beyond the Oakland community, too, because we have people coming in from the South Bay, from the North Bay, people in the Tri Valley, they all come to use this branch,” Cheung says.
The Food Bank began offering food stamp enrollment workshops at the Asian Branch in 2005 when it received a grant from the USDA, allowing the CalFresh outreach team to offer Chinese language application assistance. The goal was, and is, to reach people who are eligible for food stamps, but not participating, especially non-native English speakers.
The library is an ideal location for this type of outreach: It’s a multilingual environment with materials in eight Asian languages including: Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, Thai, Cambodian, Tagalog and Laotian.
Ly says people of all ages are coming in to apply, including families with children. She explains that although some Asian immigrants are not eligible for food stamps, their children often qualify. This was the case with the pregnant client Ly spoke with earlier in the afternoon. She says the woman was applying for CalFresh for her older children, and she will apply for her son, due in a month, once he is born.
Librarian Vera Yip also says they are seeing more families lately. “We actually see a lot of families with young children, and recently because of the economic downturn we get more and more people that ask about the food stamp program,” Yip says.
Additionally, Yip mentions that library staff are also hearing from a another demographic.“Recently, we’ve been getting a lot of phone calls; not just from Asian clients. They’re actually from people that speak English. So actually we are seeing more people that speak English to come and utilize this service,” Yip says.
Don, a 64-year-old retiree, is one of these individuals. He lives on a fixed-income in downtown Oakland and takes care of his elderly mother. He says he’s used food stamps in the past and needs them again now.
“It was very helpful, yes, yeah. So, I was kind of in a squeeze and I thought, I have to get off of my behind and do it,” says Don.
More and more Oakland residents are needing that assistance and having this Chinatown outreach program at the library is helping ease hunger for people like Don and his mother.