Missing Meals Study

 
Since the start of the recession in 2008, record numbers of people in San Francisco and Marin have sought help from government and nonprofit food assistance programs, including the Food Bank.
 
But are these programs meeting the need? That's the question researchers from the Stanford Center for the Study of Poverty and Inequality set out to examine in a 2012 analysis sponsored by the Food Bank.
 

Millions of meals are "missing"

The Great Recession officially ended in mid-2009, but the Stanford analysis shows that unmet food need continued to soar even as the economy began to stir. Just how big is the gap between meals low-income people can provide for themselves or through food assistance, and the total number of meals they need? View this chart to learn more >
 
Using groundbreaking new methods to calculate overall food need and the resources low-income people use to obtain food, researchers concluded that more than 1 in 4 of all meals low-income people needed could not be attributed to any identifiable source — in other words, they were “missing.” Government and privately funded food safety net programs have responded well in addressing the sharp increase in need since the recession, but clearly much more needs to be done.
 

New way to measure extent of need

Detailed in its May 2012 analysis, Coping With Accelerated Food Needs in San Francisco and Marin, the Stanford team used sophisticated modeling to develop the most accurate and thorough measure of unmet food need to date. 
 
Researchers started with an estimate of how much food is needed by low-income residents in San Francisco and Marin, and then calculated how much food they can afford on their own, as well as how much food assistance they could access through nonprofit sources or government programs. 
 
The difference between the amount of food people need and what's available to them (what they can afford plus food assistance) results in what researchers call "missing meals" — which totaled more than 1 in 4 needed meals for low-income residents in San Francisco and Marin in 2010.
 
While it's not possible to say whether these “missing meals” are actually missed meals, we do know that when resources are inadequate to cover basic needs, people often make untenable choices between food and other essential necessities such as safe housing, quality child care and adequate health care.
 

Finding the missing meals

Both nonprofit and government assistance programs were critical in providing needed meals during the Great Recession. The Food Bank and other nonprofit food assistance organizations covered about 13% of all food needs of low-income residents in San Francisco and Marin in 2010. Government programs also expanded, as they are designed to do, covering about 19% of all needed meals in 2010.
 
Researchers estimated that low-income people should reasonably be expected to afford to purchase about 38% of needed meals for themselves in 2010. Yet notably, purchasing ability declined considerably for low-income people during the recession, suggesting that not only did need increase because more people became low-income, low-income people had even fewer resources. 
 
But with need outpacing supply, clearly more needs to be done.  Researchers specifically highlighted the importance of improving CalFresh — California's name for the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as "food stamps."
 
CalFresh is not reaching all of the people who qualify for help, and millions of people are missing out on this important form of food assistance, putting them at increased risk of hunger. The Stanford team calculated that for every 10% increase in participation in Cal-Fresh by eligible low-income people, as many as 7.95 million meals would be added in San Francisco, and 1.87 million meals could be added in Marin.
 
By providing policy makers with these types of accurate measures of the need and estimates of projected solutions, we believe the missing meals study will help accelerate improvements to the food assistance safety net.