Hunger in the Land of Plenty: Deprivation in the Silicon Valley Part One

November 22, 2016


The upcoming holiday season, for many, is about spending quality time with family members and embracing the generous atmosphere of giving for others. In light of this annual boom of generosity as well as ASB’s food drive which started November 14, the issue of hunger in the Bay Area is more pressing than ever. Even for many here, in one of the richest counties in the world, putting food on the table is a constant struggle.

In Santa Clara County, over 44 percent of children and over 12 percent of seniors are affected by hunger annually. Although the county is considered very wealthy on a national standard, one in every four children live below the poverty line. In 2009 alone, over 183.1 million meals in Santa Clara County went “missing:” neither the households themselves nor the food assistance programs could provide these meals for families.

Although these numbers seem bleak, there has been much improvement in solving the issue of hunger, with a boost in food program assistance topping 23 percent in growth and the Hunger Index citing a decrease in the number of missing meals by over 4 percent since 2008.

Progress has been made, but there is still much to be done — hunger in the Bay Area is still a very real threat to the lives of thousands of low-income families. The multifaceted issue of hunger begets a diverse range of solutions of which awareness is the first step.

Hunger at Home

Hunger is too often summarized in a deluge of statistics, but it has very tangible, personal impacts on the lives of those it affects. For a number of students at Los Altos, hunger has forced hastened responsibility and maturity as students not only have to handle the stresses of school and being teenagers, but also worry about where their next meal comes from.

Senior Maria Ortega has had to deal with both these challenges. Because Maria’s parents have had to work long hours to afford the living cost of Silicon Valley, Maria and her siblings have grown up quicker than others might have to and assumed adult responsibilities very early in their lives.

Four years ago, Maria’s dad lost his job and her stepmother was injured and unable to work. Having enough food in the house became a concern for her family, and they looked to the community and government resources for support.

“We were living off the Woman, Infant, and Children [program] and food stamps, and we’d have to go to our church and they’d give us food,” Maria said. “That felt really shitty, all the time.”

Maria’s circumstances have warranted a heightened respect for her parents and the sacrifices they have made in order to support her and her siblings.

“Our parents would eat less and we would eat more, which felt really bad, because you knew they were hungry and tired but they just didn’t want you to see that,” Maria said.

Though her situation has improved since then, Maria still needs to support her family. She works 40 hours a week at In-N-Out, the equivalent of five days of full-time employment per week, with more long hours of schoolwork.

“I started working during the summer,” Maria said. “I haven’t been asking my dad for money, because I don’t want him to feel the pressure to buy new things, make me happy or make sure I have things I need.”

Maria isn’t the only one who has to take on greater responsibility: Maria’s entire family has to bear heavy burdens to get through tough times.

“[In families like ours,] both parents have to work 12 hours a day and [we] are still not able to make ends meet,” Maria said. “The older sibling could be 12 and have to pick up and take care of all of [the other children], learn to cook, clean — basically learning everything a mother would have to do.”

Senior Jennifer Vieyra faces a similar situation: after her father passed away last year, she immediately started working. Jennifer currently works 13 hours every weekend to help lessen the financial burden her family faces. During the school week, Jennifer prioritizes her schoolwork and other responsibilities. Jennifer has adapted similarly to Maria, assuming the role of a financial provider for her family.

Both Maria and Jennifer have struggled with having a stable food supply in their homes, and though there are resources available, it often isn’t enough. Now that the girls are over 17 years of age, they are no longer eligible for some of the government aid they received in the past.

In spite of her family’s difficult situation, Maria is able to maintain an optimistic outlook.

“[We have] enough money for the food that we need, enough food to survive,” Maria said.

But mere survival isn’t enough: our community needs to come together to assist families like Maria and Jennifer’s so that all residents of this area can benefit from Silicon Valley’s prosperity. While we look to statistical analyses of hunger in order to quantitatively assess the issue, it is important to remember that there are real people behind these numbers, and the organizations who work to combat this issue will positively influence the lives of countless families.

School Solutions

With ASB’s upcoming Thanksgiving food drive, students are reminded of the issue of hunger at Los Altos. For many students, hunger is a constant reality, affecting almost every aspect of their lives throughout the year.

“There are certain students who really don’t have money to be able to buy breakfast,” English teacher Jonathan Kwan said. “Some students are on free and [price]-reduced lunch… [and] some people don’t eat because they don’t like the food in the cafeteria. So, it’s kind of a multitude [of issues].”

Hunger manifests itself in a variety of ways, leaving many students with a partial or overgeneralized view of the multifaceted situation.

“The closer you are to the issue, the more real understanding you have of the issue,” Kwan said. “Yes, it’s good to help people who are hungry by going through your cabinets and giving it to an organization. But unless you’ve volunteered at a soup kitchen, unless you’ve personally interacted with somebody who is hungry, [you] do not really understand the emotional feeling that that elicits, which can oftentimes lead to misperceptions.”

The school does offer a free or price-reduced lunch program for students who qualify under certain federal guidelines based on family income and the number of people in the household. For students like senior Yesenia Gutierrez, this program provides tangible benefits.

“It definitely helps [that] students know that, ‘Okay, I’ll have lunch if my parents cannot afford it. I can go to the cafeteria and get a meal,” Yesenia said. “The money [adds up] if you buy lunch every single day… I think the fact that they have this program definitely helps students that are from low-income families, because there are so many stresses and financial situations, and the fact that we have this program helps out.”

The problem remains, however, that many students in need are not aware of available resources, and students who are qualified and registered on the free and price-reduced lunch program may still choose not to make use of it.

“Sometimes kids are not taking advantage of the resources or just are used to not eating,” counselor Jacob Larin said. “I do think there is a serious issue with hunger on our campus. And that’s a cause of concern for me for overall health [and stress] on our campus.”

Students may feel reluctant to publicize their struggles, which becomes a problem when they refuse to ask for help even when it is available.

“A lot of people don’t talk about [free and reduced lunch] because they feel kind of ashamed, especially in this area where everyone is so affluent,” junior Rashin Sayed said. “It’s kind of like, ‘Do I really want to embarrass myself like that?’”

To help the school allocate its resources more effectively, counselor Ariel Rojas suggests that students refer those in need to the administration.

“Sometimes, students don’t say anything because they feel like, ‘My friend wouldn’t want me to,’” Rojas said. “But if you see your friend in trouble, you need to try to figure out how to do something without hurting them or without making them embarrassed. We want people to help us and to have a [community] where people can belong.”

It is imperative that those who need food are aware of and are not ashamed to utilize school resources. As a school community, it is important that we acknowledge the issues that the school faces. While the school likely does not want to perpetuate stigmas surrounding hunger, student awareness of the issue through discussion and interaction is a necessary first step.

“This is everybody’s problem,” Rojas said. “More than anything, it’s about creating a community where we can all help each other out.”

Community Efforts

When the recession hit in 2008, the difference between the number of needed meals and meals that could be provided by food assistance programs increased from 94 million to 148 million.

Since then, the gap has only widened. Even though the amount of meals provided by food assistance more than doubled, Santa Clara County still suffered a 176 million meal deficit in 2013. Students make up a significant portion of this meal deficiency; one-third of children in Santa Clara County struggle with food insecurity. As housing prices and living costs increase, hunger in the Silicon Valley continues to outpace local services’ ability to provide for those in need.

As a result, food assistance organizations and welfare programs have been critical in alleviating hunger. In 2012, government food stamps under the CalFresh and Women, Infants and Children programs provided almost 65 percent, or 100 million, of all free meals in Santa Clara. Second Harvest provided 18 percent of the meals, and student meal assistance programs provided another 14 percent.

In the Bay Area, Second Harvest food goes to over 330 food assistance organizations to distribute food in local communities. In Mountain View, programs like the Community Services Agency (CSA) and Hope’s Corner provide a majority of these supplies. These programs can fulfill many residents’ food needs, but lack of awareness about them poses a major problem; many people don’t know where to go when they need help or resources.

“There’s always going to be those people who fall through the cracks and don’t hear about us,” Executive Director of CSA Tom Myers said. “There are kids at your school who are in need of service, and their families need extra food. We want to be sure to tell them we can help them.”

To combat the lack of awareness, CSA tries to reach people through media and outreach programs. On a typical day, CSA distributes food to around 400 people from all demographics. Staff and volunteers lay out most of the food, and clients swipe cards in lieu of payment and identification.

“People have cards with barcodes and once they swipe them, we can tell [what their needs are], like if they need food for one person or for a family,” Myers said. “If a family has kids, they might need more protein, or if the client is a senior, they might have diabetes, so we’ll [adjust] what food they get.”

For Volunteer Coordinator LaDrea Clark, volunteering is an essential part of keeping CSA running because it means the organization doesn’t have to spend more money paying staff when that money could go to aiding the community.

“If we don’t have volunteers, we have to hire more people, and we’re a non-profit so we don’t have much money to hire people,” Clark said. “If we’re paying more people, that’s less money for people in the community, so it helps us a lot to have volunteers come and spend their time helping us.”

Clark has worked at CSA for 12 years, and he believes that volunteering is a gratifying experience because it allows people to give back to the community.

“The reason volunteers keep coming back is because they feel like they’ve done something, helped somebody or given somebody a smile,” Clark said. “Being able to help somebody is very rewarding.”

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