PLEASANT HILL -- The need to eat trumps all other human necessities say those holding the social safety nets, but in Contra Costa County, thousands are going hungry despite being entitled to a share of the pie.

People seem able to find some form of shelter and get medical attention, said Larry Sly, executive director of the Food Bank of Contra Costa and Solano, but they cannot find sufficient food.

Sly said despite the food bank distributing more nutritious food -- including almost 6 million pounds of fresh produce than ever before -- hunger remains the county's greatest problem. And hunger impacts all other aspects of people's lives.

At a League of Women Voters of Diablo Valley forum this month on safety nets for children and families, another forum speaker, David Gerson, agreed.

The executive director of Loaves and Fishes said, "Without food, people can't do the things they need to do everyday."

The Hunger in America 2010 study said that across the nation the number of people in need of food has increased 46 percent since the previous study in 2006, and the numbers aren't confined to urban areas. They are in suburbia.

In fact, the Food Research and Action Center reports hunger is hitting metropolitan America hard. Calling them Metropolitan Statistical Areas, FRAC reports the worst are in California, with Bakersfield and Fresno placing one and two respectively.


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The FRAC research also shows California trails most states in not taking advantage of the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program that funds the CalFresh program, formerly known as food stamps.

"In this county, more people are eligible for food stamps than are receiving them," said forum panelist Paul Buddenhagen, One Stop administrator and county Service Integration manager.

California's enrollment rate is approximately half of the eligible population and Contra Costa mimics those statistics, said Buddenhagen.

"Americans don't always recognize how pervasive hunger is, or that it is a problem where they live," reported FRAC in its Food Hardship in America 2011 research. "In our communities it is often hidden by families that don't want to share their economic struggles ... And often it goes unseen by those not looking for it."

Gerson said there is always the mentality of "not in my backyard, but the people we are serving are your neighbors. It's a local problem, it's not people coming from outside the community."

The local economy suffers with the county's inability to reach all those eligible for food stamps.

The USDA estimates every dollar spent in food stamps translates into $1.84 in economic activity benefiting local and state governments through sales tax revenue. In a 2009 study, California Food Policy Advocates calculated that California lost more than $3.7 billion in benefits and $6.8 billion in economic activity over the previous year if food stamp participation had reached 100 percent.

Additionally, child poverty in Contra Costa County has steadily increased since 2000 when the Mt. Diablo Unified School District reported a 9.7 percent poverty rate among schoolchildren, according to the April 2012 Child Poverty in Contra Costa County annual update by Joe Valentine.

The update shows the Mt. Diablo school district figure rose to 11.9 percent in 2010. The Walnut Creek school district doubled its rate from 3.3 percent in 2000 to 6.9 percent in 2010.

Although the two school districts' numbers are much lower than John Swett in Crocket -- with a 21 percent poverty level in 2010 from 6.4 percent in 2000 or Pittsburg's 19.3 percent from 11.5 percent -- the numbers reinforce the continuation of the suburbanization of poverty in the Bay Area.

"It's heartbreaking to see kids whose parents don't have enough money to feed them." said Gerson.

Erasing the myths and stigma around getting help is the biggest problem, said Sly.

In Contra Costa and Solano counties, 30.1 percent of clients surveyed believed that their income was above the eligible level as a reason for not applying for food stamps. Of the same households, 21.3 percent had incomes at or below 130 percent poverty level," a Food Bank survey reported.

"This is just one example of the public's confusion about eligibility for this program," he said.

Buddenhagen said the problem is too big for one agency.

"I work with the county Department of Employment and Human Services. We have a $400 million plus budget. That's a big piece of the safety net and yet, it's not enough."

So Buddenhagen gathered a group of stakeholders and they brainstormed on combining their efforts to get the right services to the people who need them.

The group came up with about 15 program ideas.

"Not all these programs will bear fruit, but I'm hoping some will," Buddenhagen said.

Mostly he is enthused that those in charge of the many threads intertwining to make the county's safety nets are working together to save more people.

"All these programs are making an investment in our families and our children," said forum panelist Carol Carrillo, executive director of the Child Abuse Prevention Council of Contra Costa. "These programs and partnerships are important in keeping kids safe."

Ultimately, it is the children who bear the brunt of the pain and suffering caused when tears and holes appear in social safety nets, agreed the forum panelists.

The day's message: everyone needs to invest in programs as volunteers or with money.

"This is in your best interest to make your community stronger," said Gerson.

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