Marin Independent Journal: Low-income Marin residents missing six meals a week

March 12, 2015

Low-income Marin County residents are missing fewer meals than in years past, but the average person in this group can still miss out on about six meals each week.
A recent report by the San Francisco and Marin Food Bank states people missed one less meal each week in 2012 than they did in 2007 because of nonprofit and government assistance, according to the most recent data available. While that’s an improvement for hungry residents, nonprofit leaders say the lack of job growth and low wages make it continually difficult for people to afford food.

“We’ve made some progress, but we’re not even halfway back to where we were pre-recession,” said Paul Ash, executive director for the San Francisco and Marin Food Bank. “There are still folks out there making wages similar to what they were in 2007, even though the costs of living and especially housing are going up.”

While low-income people do have money to spend on food, Ash said, they simply don’t have enough money to cover all their meals. Even with help from CalFresh, the federal program formerly known as food stamps, and meals from food pantries, residents often end up ignoring hunger to pay for life’s other necessities.

“Food is oftentimes where that friction gets played out. You can’t afford to not buy your bus pass or drive to work, but you can afford to skip a meal,” Ash said. “It’s the one thing that gets left at the bottom of the heap, sometimes.”

Missing mealsCountywide, low-income residents were able to provide 21.2 million meals for themselves in 2012. Federal assistance provided 9.8 million meals and nonprofits provided 4.8 million meals. Despite the help, it’s estimated Marin residents still missed 12.5 million meals in 2012.

These low-income residents are identified in the food bank’s report as people living at the 185 percent federal poverty level. A family of four at this level made $42,600 in 2012.

Teri Olle, advocacy director for the San Francisco and Marin Food Bank, said Marin, like many other counties, saw a dramatic increase in the number of people in need of food during the recession. In fact, the San Francisco Food Bank began distributing food in Marin in 2008, after the national economy began its spiral downward and the Marin Food Bank failed to meet a sharply increased demand for food. The two agencies combined in 2011.

“Over the last five years, the growth in the nonprofit contribution in Marin has doubled,” Olle said.

The San Francisco and Marin Food Bank has 47 pantries in Marin, plus another pantry is scheduled to open in April at Olive Elementary School in Novato. Food from the San Francisco nonprofit is also doled out to Ritter Center in downtown San Rafael, which provides a range of services to the homeless and working poor.

Food assistance Ben Leroi, deputy director for Ritter Center, said the center saw a huge increase in the use of its food pantry in 2008 and 2009. He said not much has changed since then due to the increased costs of living, rising rents and low wages.

“The people who started coming to us, most of them are still coming. We haven’t seen a huge drop-off since the great recession,” Leroi said. “That points to me that people really needed the supplemental assistance all along. Once they were forced to, they realized how helpful it is.”

The center distributed more than 27,000 bags of groceries last year to Marin residents. Each week the center gives bags of food to about 330 to 380 households, representing more than 600 people. Bags are filled with seasonal produce, canned goods, rice, potatoes and onions.

Leroi said the distribution allows needy families to save anywhere from $20 to $50 a week on groceries — funds that can be spent elsewhere on medications, transportation and rent.

“It’s really a homeless prevention strategy. It provides a way to subsidize people’s monthly budgets without actually giving away dollars,” Leroi said.

In addition, the center helps people register for CalFresh assistance.

“The CalFresh program has been a wonderful resource. We’ve done a huge amount of CalFresh applications,” Leroi said. “We help them do all the paperwork.”

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About the Author

Megan Hansen is a reporter for the Marin Independent Journal covering San Rafael, Larkspur and Corte Madera. She has worked for various media outlets and community newspapers since 2009. She holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism with a minor in digital media from California State University, Sacramento. She is a Sacramento native and a member of the Society of Professional Journalists. Reach the author at or follow Megan on Twitter: @HansenMegan.