EAST PALO ALTO, Calif.–Once a week, Altagracia Hernandez boards a bus near her tiny two-bedroom apartment in East Palo Alto, Calif., and heads to the Ecumenical Hunger Program (EHP) on Puglas Road to stock up on a three-day supply of canned foods and fresh produce.
If money is really tight, as it often is, Hernandez, 37, does the two-mile trip on foot–pushing her shopping cart.
There’s not much left for food, let alone bus fare, from her husband Joe’s job as a parking attendant in San Mateo, after paying the $1,500 rent for the apartment in this largely Hispanic neighborhood. The local St. Vincent de Paul Society supplements the EHP handouts.
Going to Bed Hungry
Hernandez said she tries to make sure that her children never go to bed hungry, but she doesn’t always succeed.
“There are times when I’ve had to say there’s not enough food tonight,” Hernandez said softly, as her two younger children, Jose, 10, and Yarixa, 4, sat by her side, munching on snacks they had just picked up at the EHP.
The Hernandez family is a part of the growing number of Californians in poverty hit by the economic downturn. U.S. Census figures released this week indicate that more than 6 million people in the Golden State, more than 2 million of them children, lived in poverty last year, an increase for the sixth straight year.
“These new data provide a sobering portrait of the economic hardship facing millions of Californians, observed David Zingale, senior vice president of The California Endowment (TCE), a nonprofit that is trying to improve the health of Californians. “They show how far we’ve fallen from the Clinton era of prosperity.”
Data from a Gallup survey released three weeks ago by the Food Research and Action Center show that one in four California families lack enough money to buy food at times for themselves or their families. The poll also revealed that of the top 20 metropolitan areas in the nation facing food hardship, four are in California.
Last year, just over 16 percent of Californians lived below the federal poverty line of $10,830 for an individual and $22,050 for a family of four, according to the U.S. Census. That is greater than the national level of 15 percent, among the highest in recent decades.
More than one out of five Californians under age 65 (21.4 percent) lacked health coverage in 2010, up from 19.6 percent in 2006. The share of Californians below 65 with job-based health insurance was 52.9 percent last year, down from 56.4 percent in 2006.
Although eight in nine of the state’s children have health insurance coverage, among the 11 percent not covered, California has 773,000 uninsured children living in low-income families (below 200 percent of the federal poverty level). That represents one of seven low-income, uninsured children nationally.
Also, between 2009 and 2010, there was a slight uptick in the number of uninsured children in California, from just under a million to slightly over a million—a rise of 42,000.
Between 2007 and 2010, nearly a half million fewer children in California (449,000) had private health insurance, while over 600,000 more children relied on public coverage like Medicaid, according to the just-released U.S. Census data.
Insurance Lack Driving More Into Poverty
Hernandez’s three children are on the Healthy Families program–a health insurance program for low-income children. Her husband, Joe, has insurance through his job, but she has none and goes to a neighborhood community health clinic when she falls sick.
She is among the state’s nearly 7 million uninsured–the largest number of any state. That number is “driving more and more families into poverty,” observed TCE’s Zingale.
“But there is hope on the horizon. The number of insured will increase as the [Affordable Care Act] takes effect,” Zingale said, referring to the new health care reform law. “That will bring down the cost for all of us.”
Through a series of ethnic media briefings, TCE has spearheaded efforts to make ethnic communities in California more aware of the new health care reform law signed into law by President Obama. It will provide health insurance for the country’s legal residents. (TCE funded New America Media to organize those briefings.)
Concerned by drastic cut in California’s census outreach budget–from $25 million in 2000 to $2 million in 2010–The California Endowment (TCE) fund invested $4 million in U.S. Census outreach to hard-to-count communities so that the state’s underserved population would not be undercounted. Government agencies use census figures to determine the budget allocations for service programs. More than 20 other funders matched TCE’s investment with contributions totaling more than $5 million.
On a recent day, families at the Ecumenical Hunger Program Center quickly snapped up loaves of bread donated by food banks and left on shelves outside the center’s front door. Some family members then checked at the front desk to see if blankets, backpacks or furniture they had requested came in.
The center has seen a significant rise in clients in the last four years, from 3,707 in 2008 to 4,507 so far this year.
“In recent years, we have seen more people coming in more frequently,” observed Leisa Preston, EHP’s executive director.
A “Food Desert”
To make matters worse for East Palo Alto residents, the city is a food desert – a place where access to healthy foods such as fruits and vegetables is either limited, too expensive or even non-existent. The nonprofit organization, Collective Roots, recently launched a community-farmers’ market.
When the food she collects from the EHP and St. Vincent de Paul Society runs out, the nearby Taco Bell and McDonald’s are sometimes the only affordable places to satisfy Hernandez’s kids’ hunger — possibly one of the reasons why her two younger children have been diagnosed as obese. On the children’s pediatrician’s advice, she and her children will soon begin classes at the obesity prevention program at Stanford University.
Hernandez said she is always looking for sales in the one supermarket the town opened last year.
Outside her home is a large bin filled with empty plastic bottles and soda cans. Hernandez said she collects these from neighbors’ trash cans and sells them in a recycling store to supplement her husband Joe’s $1,800 monthly income. Some weekends, Joe changes the oil on his neighbor’s cars and does other odd jobs for them to make an extra buck or two.
But despite the couple’s best efforts to keep their refrigerator well stocked, there are days when there’s “just not enough food,” Hernandez lamented.
“I would like to give them more fruits and vegetables, but that’s not always possible,” she said with a sigh.
Video, Text: Viji Sundaram//Video: Ann Bassette