The lackluster donations come at a time when the food bank is serving more people than ever, feeding a total of 267,000 people each month — or about 1 in 10 people residing in the two counties. More and more families, particularly ones that have never needed food assistance before, have come to rely on food bank services because of the high cost of housing in the area, said Cat Cvengros, Second Harvest's vice president of marketing.
"The trend this year has been growth from last year," Cvengros said. "Families that are working two or three jobs maybe wouldn't have needed the food bank in the past, but the crunch on housing is forcing them to seek help."
Last year, the food bank conducted a study that found 27 percent of residents in Santa Clara and San Mateo counties struggled with "food insecurity," meaning that the high cost of rent, health care and other expenses put them at risk of going hungry. That amounts to about 720,000 people across the two counties, meaning Second Harvest still isn't reaching hundreds of thousands of needy families.
Hunger is a struggle that often goes unseen, Cvengros said. People don't generally broadcast that they are not eating well or that their children are missing meals, and the strong economy and low unemployment rate obscure the growing problem. She said the number of seniors seeking food from Second Harvest is rising fast, which is tough — many of the clients haven't relied on the food bank before and are reluctant to ask for help even as they're losing weight.
One of the big goals of Second Harvest is to make an end run around that stigma and reach families where they are comfortable picking up food — at schools, libraries or health centers. Cvengros said that the food bank launched 19 food programs at schools throughout the area, which has helped Second Harvest reach families who have never sought food assistance before. The next stop, she said, is more distribution at affordable housing complexes.
"We're looking at where our clients are," she said. "Then people don't have to worry about taking two buses and carrying all those groceries."
Second Harvest officials have been hesitant to pin the lower donations on any one particular cause, but said the lower contributions from major donors may have been fueled by federal tax law changes enacted in 2017. The shortfall experienced by the network of food banks throughout the Bay Area has also been compounded by the destruction caused by the Camp Fire in Butte County last month, which has diverted both staff and truckloads of food to families that lost their homes in the fire.
The other major concern on the horizon is that the high need for food services comes at a time when the economy is doing great, which doesn't bode well for when the economy eventually sinks. Cvengros said Second Harvest has recently worked to increase its warehouse space to store as much food as possible, knowing full well that an economic downturn could boost demand for food to record-high levels.
"If the economy goes downhill we will see an increase in need, and that's a big concern of ours because so many people already come to us," she said.
To learn more or to donate to Second Harvest, go to shfb.org.
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