25/07/2024 3:02 PM

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The Health Maniacs

COVID-19: Stanislaus County families facing food insecurity

9 min read

Read more about food insecurity in Stanislaus County ==> Stanislaus County programs get creative to provide food to the needy during COVID-19

Modesto resident Claudia Villagomez and her husband lost their jobs in the farm fields when the pandemic hit, and they haven’t been able to find work.

They were out of money to feed their family. A friend told her about the Salvation Army food bank.

On a blistering hot August day, she backed her small sedan into the refrigerated port at the agency’s food distribution center on Janopaul Lane in South Modesto, where the volunteers filled her trunk with apples, milk and non-perishables.

“It helps a lot,” said Villagomez. “We have four children and my parents.”

Her kids range in age from 2 to 13 and they usually rely on school lunch to fend off hunger, but the coronavirus pandemic has them home-bound. The family is struggling with food insecurity.

The United States Department of Agriculture, USDA, defines food insecurity as not having enough food to lead a healthy, active life. It defines hunger as an individual’s experience of physical discomfort or illness due to prolonged, involuntary lack of food.

The Villagomez family and other families in Modesto aren’t the only ones suffering with food insecurity. Residents in Riverbank, Oakdale and rural farmlands in Stanislaus County are facing similar issues most often linked to disadvantaged neighborhoods.

The COVID-19 pandemic has amplified the existing economic woes for low-income families and brought on unexpected financial hardships for the newly unemployed throughout the county.

Elected leaders, at the federal, state and local levels, are trying to support residents during the adversities caused by COVID-19.

“I’ve heard from more and more families throughout this pandemic who are struggling to put food on the table,” said Rep. Josh Harder (D-Turlock) in an email.

Harder said he has worked on bipartisan legislation to help get federal funds to the Central Valley.

Heath Flora (R-Ripon), Assemblyman for California District 12 including Modesto and northeast Stanislaus County, expressed concern that some of the recent state legislation may have a negative impact on the business community, “driving up the cost of living” for everyone.

“Since the pandemic lockdown started our office has worked with local nonprofits like American Veterans First to deliver over a thousand individual food packages to constituents all over the district,” Flora said in an email.

“With the pandemic, we have developed emergency networks for food distribution, “ said Jody Hayes, CEO of Stanislaus County, “The goal is if anyone needs support, and meals are the No. 1 priority, they can get it.”

Food insecurity and poverty

In Stanislaus County, more than 17% of all residents and almost 23% of kids younger than 18 live at or below the federal poverty level. Nearly 1 in 5 children go to bed hungry, and that was before the pandemic.

But those numbers don’t paint the full landscape of food insecurity across the county’s diverse geography, from rural farmlands to city neighborhoods.

Food insecurity results from not having enough money to buy food or the lack of access to healthy food. Access can be limited because there isn’t a grocery store nearby or not having transportation to get to the store, or both.

In a low-access food area, a significant share of the people living there don’t have a full-service supermarket, within 1 mile in urban areas and 10 miles in rural areas.

Stanislaus County Health Services Agency uses broad swaths of census data, called county subdivisions, to plan programs and services. The Westport subdivision, which includes south Modesto and the southwest area of the county, has the highest rate of overall poverty at 24.7% in the county. The Waterford subdivision has the highest rate of poverty for children younger than 18 at more than 28%.

The lowest overall poverty rate is in the Salida subdivision at 12% and for child poverty the lowest rate of 15% is in the Oakdale subdivision, which are below the state’s pre-pandemic rate of 17%.

Pockets of low-income and low access to affordable, healthy food exist throughout the county, which are identified using census data by the USDA.

Riverbank, Oakdale and Northeast County

At the Riverbank Christian Food Sharing, Kathie Walsh-Garces was waiting for her Farm-to-Families food box, which included meat and fresh fruits and veggies. She also picked up eggs, bread and some dry goods.

At 58, Walsh-Garces is homeless for the first time in her life.

“We’re staying at Oakdale Reservoir, living out of two tents,” said Walsh-Garces.

As is the case for many in the county, 2020 has been a brutal year for Walsh-Garces and her husband. Their rental house caught fire in February and became unlivable. She had a serious illness that resulted in losing sight in her right eye and her mother-in-law died in July just shy of her 90th birthday. Walsh-Garces’ job was as her full-time caregiver, which was her source of income.

She has always worked as a home caregiver, and now she can’t find a job. Her husband works as a night security guard but his salary alone isn’t enough to rent a new place.

“I went to register my car, that’s when it hit me,” said Walsh-Garces, fighting back tears, “I realized I don’t even have a home. I don’t have an address.”

She said, “If it wasn’t for these guys (the food bank), I don’t know how we would be eating as well as we do.”

Ceres, Hughson and South County

In Hughson, the United Samaritans food truck arrives midday every Monday through Friday playing carnival music, just like an ice cream truck.

On a recent day, two pre-schoolers waited for the truck on the stoop of their apartment in a one-story complex near the truck’s parking spot. As soon as they saw the truck, they went bounding to it, with the same visible excitement as a child going for frozen treats. This time it was for a lunch of pasta salad with chicken and a cookie.

Their father was embarrassed that the children went to the truck, and didn’t want to share their names. He is a landscaper who can’t find work but insisted he had food for his kids to allay any doubts of onlookers.

Also in the line were senior citizens with walkers and middle-age adults with weary expressions, all chatting with a familiarity of club members.

“I can’t find work,” said Robert Liv
ely, 52, of Hughson standing in line. “I was working for myself remodeling.”

He said with the pandemic, times are hard. People don’t want workers in their homes.

He comes everyday for food for himself that he shares with his dog, who was waiting patiently for his morsels.

Lively said his girlfriend is in the hospital battling cancer, so he’s alone and without any resources, and that the food truck “helps a lot.”

West Stanislaus County

Deysi Reynoso was surprised to answer the knock on her door to find Rep. Josh Harder with a pull wagon overloaded with food for her family.

Reynoso lives with her husband and three children in Westley in a Stanislaus County Housing Authority complex for agriculture workers. Her family has struggled with food insecurity in the past.

“A couple of years ago we had problems, but things are better now,” said Reynoso.

Her husband works in the almond groves and she has two jobs as a janitor. This allowed them to get a car, which has helped them access food, as the nearest grocery store is in Patterson, more than five miles away.

Harder was participating in a special event organized by Golden Valley Health Centers to celebrate National Health Center Week in August. In addition to Harder, GVHC partners included Second Harvest Food Bank, Stanislaus County Housing Authority and Central Valley Opportunity Center to distribute food and COVID-19 education and supplies to a Latino community hard hit by poverty and the pandemic.

The pervasiveness of food insecurity, especially among farm workers, seems to be a cruel irony in the Central Valley, the agriculture cornucopia for the nation.

Wages for farm workers, as well as day laborers, home health aids, child caretakers, retail workers and so many others deemed essential, aren’t sufficient to sustain housing and food.

Poverty and food access

“It’s hard, all the way around,” said Walsh-Garces, at the food bank located next to Pioneer Park in Riverbank.

She said she thanked God for the food bank, because they kept her family fed in the lowest time in her life.

Generally food insecure areas are within poor neighborhoods, though some areas are nestled within communities where the overall poverty is not high. For example, Pioneer Park is separated by 5 miles of farmland to Oakdale, where the poverty rate is 10.5%, one of the lowest in Stanislaus County.

“With the pandemic, we have a tremendous amount of new families,” said Linda Silva, a co-chair of Riverbank Christian Food Sharing.

She said families tell her stories about being laid off, losing their jobs and needing more food since the kids are home from school.

Silva said usually every week they serve 80 to 90 families, and with the pandemic the numbers have increased to 115 to 130 families.

According to the state Employment Development Department, the July unemployment rate in the county was 13.6%, compared to 4.1% at the same time last year. In August the rates were 10.9% and 5.8% in 2020 and 2019, respectively, and though improving, still too many families don’t have the funds for food.

The abrupt rise in unemployment and the economic hardships of the pandemic are taking a toll on families nationwide, especially low-income, and Black and Latino/Hispanic families, according to the Urban Institute. Their researchers found that nearly 40% of Latino families with mixed immigrant status didn’t have enough food for their children.

High unemployment rates, especially among low-income families who don’t have savings, make it even more difficult to feed everyone in the household, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The financial uncertainties place an additional stressor for parents.

Not knowing if or when their next meal is coming negatively affects mental and physical health, especially for children and teens who are still growing.

Food insecurity, food swamps and health

In addition to food insecure areas, some neighborhoods are designated as food swamps, meaning there are more sources of poor quality food, such as fast food restaurants and corner stores, than places to buy nutritious items, such as fresh fruits and vegetables.

Adults living with food insecurity have increased rates of obesity, diabetes and chronic illnesses, especially if they are also low-income and live in poor neighborhoods, according to multiple studies. Some researchers have suggested that living in a food swamp heightens the risk for obesity among adults.

Children and teens younger than 18 living in food insecure families also have higher rates of health problems. Researchers have documented obesity as a paradoxical partner of food insecurity, especially among low-income women and teens. One reason identified is that food insecure households tend to consume foods that are calorie-dense but nutritionally poor. Low-quality foods are often cheap, such as a box of mac-and-cheese or a fast food kid’s meal. Those items may cost $1 and fill stomachs but have few nutrients.

Youth in food insecure household also have negative effects on development, school performance and mental health including more anxiety, depression, attention problems and aggression, than their food-secure peers, according to the American Psychological Association.

During the pandemic, some at-risk children have more time confined at home with stressed parents, less access to school food and the added challenges of distance learning. Child health experts are concerned about the long-term impacts of food insecurity layered with the impacts of the coronavirus pandemic.

School districts, local, state and federal government agencies, philanthropic organizations and grass-root community groups have stepped up to help keep their neighbors of all ages fed during the pandemic economy.

To locate food resources, call #211 or any of the charities listed. Or visit the Feeding America food bank locator at https://www.feedingamerica.org/find-your-local-foodbank or Second Harvest Food Bank at https://www.localfoodbank.org/

Stanislaus County Community Services Agency offers assistance with most government programs, including CalFresh (food stamps) at https://www.csa-stanislaus.com/cal-fresh/ or at 209-558-2500.

This story was produced with financial support from The Stanislaus County Office of Education and the Stanislaus Community Foundation, along with the GroundTruth Project’s Report for America initiative. The Modesto Bee maintains full editorial control of this work.

To help fund The Bee’s children’s health and economic development reporters with Report for America, go to bitly.com/ModbeeRFA

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ChrisAnna Mink is pediatrician and health reporter for The Modesto Bee. She covers children’s health in Stanislaus County and the Central Valley. Her position is funded through the financial support from The Stanislaus County Office of Education and the Stanislaus Community Foundation, along with The GroundTruth Project’s Report for America initiative. The Modesto Bee maintains full editorial control of her work.

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