Health

Saturday, Nov 30 2013 08:00 PM

Already struggling families making do with less

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    By Henry A. Barrios / The Californian

    Ellis Stafford, center, and Chuy Aguilar help distribute food at a Stop The Violence food distribution one recent Wednesday in Bakersfield.

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    By Henry A. Barrios / The Californian

    Monik King, who is finding it hard to make ends meet, picks up food during a free food distribution by the Stop The Violence organization that will help supplement the food her family already has.

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  3. 3 of 6

    By Henry A. Barrios / The Californian

    A large crowd gathers for a free food distribution by the Stop The Violence organization.

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    By Henry A. Barrios / The Californian

    Falesha Allen is finding it hard to keep food on the table for her family.

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    By Henry A. Barrios / The Californian

    Isaiah Crompton, executive director of Stop The Violence, who also runs a sober living home, helps with the distribution of food to more than 1,500 people.

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    By Henry A. Barrios / The Californian

    After a recent food distribution by the Stop The Violence organization, Falesha Allen checks to see the food items that were given to her. The food will help her family get by as the end of the month nears.

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BY RACHEL COOK Californian staff writer rcook@bakersfield.com

A young mother of a 1-year-old daughter will buy fewer snacks, sticking with "just the basics."

Another mother is planning to cut out afterschool treats. Some families are visiting food pantries to supplement their cupboards' staples.

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GET HELP

Kern County residents in need of food can call 211 to find their nearest food distribution site. Families with young children can also call 866-327-3074 to apply for the Women, Infants and Children nutrition program if a woman is pregnant, nursing or has children younger than 5.

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Kern County residents are beginning to feel the effects of changes to food stamps -- changes putting less money in their pockets -- that help millions of Americans feed their families.

In November, an increase in food stamp allotments from the 2009 stimulus package expired, affecting more than 47 million Americans who rely on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

The cuts mean a family of four will receive about $36 less a month, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

More than 136,700 Kern County residents received food stamps as of Nov. 20. More than half of those people were children younger than 18 and another 3 percent were seniors age 60 and older.

The cuts, which may seem minor, come at a time of increasing need locally.

Demands on the SNAP program have risen every year since 2002 in Kern County.

And despite the improving economy and national news reports calling Bakersfield a "boomtown" because of its population and job growth, food stamp usage is up, not down, this year, though the recent spike is smaller than was seen during the height of the recession.

Already through September of this year, 4,640 more Kern County residents used food stamps -- called CalFresh in California -- than in all of 2012, according to the Kern County Department of Human Services.

In 2011, almost 50 percent of Kern County's food stamp recipients were Hispanic and about 39 percent where white, according to the federal SNAP Data System. Black people accounted for more than 5 percent of local food stamp recipients and Asians counted for almost 4 percent.

Twice as many local people have received food stamps this year than a decade ago. Those folks are now getting about 5 percent less a month in CalFresh benefits, said Pam Holiwell, DHS assistant director.

Clients are letting the department know the change hurts, she said.

"Some said, 'I can barely get by with what you were already giving,' or 'I guess a bill will have to go so I can buy food,'" Holiwell said.

There isn't much the department can do besides refer people to community resources like the Community Action Partnership of Kern Food Bank, Holiwell said.

Problem is, the food bank's budget for the rest of the year is already set; it's not going to get more food, operators said in early November.

Pam Fiorini, executive director of the Golden Empire Gleaners, said food supply is the Gleaners' challenge as well.

The nonprofit -- which collects food from growers, grocery stores, food drives and food manufacturers -- has worked to increase its capacity to distribute food. It has a good cash donor base to support the infrastructure but not extra money to buy food, Fiorini said.

"We can handle more, we've got the infrastructure," she said.

The community is already so generous but the need is bottomless, Fiorini said. So many people's needs are met, but it is the stories of people who slip through the cracks that tug at Fiorini's heart.

"(Food insecurity is) not an easy problem to solve either and it can't be solved only with donations," she said.

"It's a systemic problem and people bigger than I are going to need to figure that one out. In the meantime, we are just trying to help the people that are right in front of us," Fiorini added later.

 

LINING UP FOR HELP

In the weeks before Thanksgiving, men, women and children lined up along dusty sidewalks or waited in parking lots throughout Bakersfield for bags of canned goods, dried beans and sometimes vegetables and packages of frozen meat.

Even with the extra help, families said they still felt the squeeze of fewer food stamp dollars.

"We just have to buy less of everything, less of snacks. We just have to buy the basics," said Susie Rodriguez, 17.

Rodriguez comforted her fussy 1-year-old daughter, Isabella Rodriguez, while they waited in a food line on Haley Street in east Bakersfield about a week before the holiday.

Rodriguez, who is still in school and can't work because she can't afford to pay a babysitter, said her family's food stamps were reduced to $230.

Other mothers are also deciding what to cut. Monik King, 33, who lives with her husband, her 9-year-old daughter and more than half a dozen other family members, said after-school snacks and sweets for the kids will have to go.

"It went from hot dogs and hot pockets for snacks to basically you gotta eat some leftovers from last night," she said.

King left the same food line as Rodriguez carrying a green box carton of milk and bagged salad. Her food stamps dropped to $347 from $367 in November and she was looking for food for the holiday.

"It was kind of depressing but at the same time, there's nothing I can do about it," she said.

King said she is searching for work and hopes that volunteering at a homeless shelter will lead to a warehouse job. Her husband, who works for a temporary labor agency, is also "hoping and praying to get a permanent position."

Toward the end of the month, the family gets hungry.

"We try to get basically whatever we can. Noodles, chicken, rice," she said.

Across town, Doyle Ladassor visited Catholic Charities Diocese of Fresno to pick up food. The 78-year-old only received $16 a month in food assistance; that was cut to $15.

He usually uses his food stamps to purchase breakfast food like milk, bacon or eggs.

"When you're just living on Social Security, it's rough," Ladassor said.

 

WATCHING FOR IMPACT

Local organizations that distribute food to the needy said it is too soon to say if more people are asking for their help since the sunset of the 2009 food stamp hike.

"Every holiday season the numbers always go up," said Marco Paredes, resource and outreach development manager for the Community Action Partnership.

But some leaders said demand for food assistance was rising even before the holidays.

"The last couple of months for sure there's been a greater need," said Isaiah Crompton, executive director of Stop the Violence, which distributes food in east Bakersfield.

Fiorini, of the Golden Empire Gleaners, said her group has received more referrals in the last couple months.

She's also noticed an uptick in something that is harder to quantify -- desperation.

"(The food stamp program) wasn't meeting the need to begin with (before the enhancement expired). It's still not adequate and it's worse," she said.

At The Hope Center in Oildale, November started out busy. Assistant Executive Director Bill Richert said staff members and volunteers expected to see more people because of the hit to food stamps.

"It seems like we're seeing people from all over coming here now...We also know that the Thanksgiving month is typically a time when more people do come in for more food because of the holiday," Richert said.

Joey Hodnett, 30, of Bakersfield, said a stop by the Christian charity the second week of November would flesh out his family's holiday meal.

Hodnett could only afford a ham and stuffing. But with bags of groceries from The Hope Center, his family could cook a pie or put on some green beans with bacon, he said.

"We can make something out of it so our Thanksgiving can be a real traditional one and not just a meal," he said.

Standing in the parking lot with his partner and two young children, Hodnett said his food stamps fell from about $200 to $189 in November. His family tries to buy enough of one kind of food -- like meat or canned goods -- each month to last them three months. But they often run out of one group of food before they can replenish it.

They eat a lot of stuffing made from bread crumbs, butter and water because it is cheap, filling and tasty, Hodnett said.

The family gets by on Hodnett's financial aid and his partner's paycheck; he is a student at Bakersfield College and she works at a Mexican fast food restaurant.

"It gets really hard right now. It's kinda a little bit scary," Hodnett said. "You know, I worry a lot for the future of my kids."

Places like The Hope Center and Catholic Charities can help families fill the gap, but it isn't easy to accept the handouts, some visitors said.

"It kinda hurts, you know, to ask" for help, said Luwanna Alvidres, wiping at tears building in her eyes.

Alvidres came to Catholic Charities for food with her 3-year-old granddaughter, Randi McClain, in the week before Thanksgiving for food.

As Randi scribbled on a piece of paper and chattered, Alvidres outlined her family's tight financial situation. She has kidney problems and her husband was diagnosed with diabetes this summer.

Alvidres said they saved and saved, but major medical bills drained their reserves. Then she and her 66-year-old husband took in Randi and two other grandchildren in July.

Her husband works but with five people to feed, they have had to use a credit card to pay for groceries.

"We eat a lot of like casserole and stuff like that because it seems to go further," Alvidres said.

Their family was recently approved for food stamps. Alvidres didn't expect to receive the benefit but she checked a box for food stamps anyway when she applied for Medi-Cal, the state's version of the Medicaid public health insurance program.

The food stamps are absolutely appreciated, Alvidres said.

"Even though it was cut, to us it's still a big help," she said.

STIGMA STILL THRIVING

Hunger is a long standing problem in Kern County.

From 2008 to 2012, Bakersfield ranked second highest in the nation for food hardship for homes with children, according to the Food Research and Action Center, a nonprofit that seeks to eradicate hunger and undernutrition in the United States.

Bakersfield ranked first for food hardship in households without children.

Households were counted as experiencing food hardship if people in them said yes to the question, "Have there been times in the past twelve months when you did not have enough money to buy food that you or your family needed?"

Yet the phrase "food insecurity" makes many people bristle, said Chris Stille, a member of the Kern Food Policy Council.

For many, it's a buzz word that conjures up images of folks who are too lazy to work or continually churn out children so they can leech off public programs, Stille said.

Stille tries to break the stereotype by sharing his own story.

"It's because of the assistance that I received in the past that I was able to continue down my career path and end up where I am now," he said.

In his early 20s, Stille was working as many hours as he could as a grocery store clerk in Lake Isabella with a young wife who was looking for work and a daughter to support.

Stille's young family received food stamps for less than six months during that tough time. The aid was a tremendous help that allowed the couple to use their limited budget for other necessities, like paying utility bills, Stille said.

"It was a gigantic relief for us," he said.

Almost two decades later, Stille, 37, now works as a supervisor at a natural gas company. But he still remembers the shame he felt receiving food stamps. He shopped at the only other grocery store in town so his coworkers wouldn't know.

The stigma and fear of judgment persists. Many people contacted at food distribution sites in Bakersfield last month said they didn't want to talk about being on food stamps if their name would appear in the newspaper.

"I think the stigma wants to reflect someone that's lazy and not working and trying to live off the system," said Holiwell, from the Department of Human Services.

But in reality, "probably the majority of (local food stamp beneficiaries) are those who are working but they're working low-wage jobs," Holiwell said.

For instance, Kern County had 59,170 CalFresh cases in September and nearly 48,000 of those cases were households that did not receive any additional cash benefit. That means those people have income of some kind, Holiwell said. They are the working poor.

"It's people who you don't necessarily know are getting CalFresh benefits," she said. "They're regular, everyday people."

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