Studio Sacramento: River City Food Bank


Scott Syphax: Who is hungry in Sacramento might surprise you. Many of the people who seek help haven’t needed it until something unexpected happens. River City Food Bank helps many people through food distribution and assistance. Executive director Amanda McCarthy and CalFresh director Amy Dierlam join me next on Studio Sacramento. ♪♪ ♪♪ Scott: Amanda, who composes the hungry in Sacramento? Amanda McCarthy: So right now in Sacramento County, about 215,000 people experience food insecurity and that essentially means that they don’t have consistent or dependable access to food needed for a healthy life. At River City Food Bank, we’re serving a variety of folks including seniors, children, a lot of working families, certainly people experiencing homelessness, refugees and certainly anybody that might be in need of our services. Scott: And when you’re looking at the population that you serve, all these subpopulations, are there any that are new, that have bubbled to the surface or become more present than in the past? Amanda: I would say a couple of things. One, we are seeing more children than we’ve ever seen before. One in five kids in Sacramento currently experiences hunger. Scott: One in five? Amanda: One in five, one in five. And last year, River City Food Bank served a record 205,000 people. Nearly half of them were children. Scott: Half of them were children. Amy, I’m curious, has the population other than the greater prevalence of children, has it changed over the years? Amy Dierlam: In terms of the food bank or in terms of CalFresh? Scott: In terms of, well, CalFresh, just to speak to that, is the program that replaced what we commonly knew as food stamps. Correct? Amy: Correct, or SNAP as we used to call it. Scott: Or SNAP, or SNAP. Amy: Yes, that’s the national name. Scott: Has that population evolved over the years? Amy: I would say so. Yes, we’re finding more and more people that are in and out of employment or just in and out of situations where they need the assistance more than ever, yeah. Scott: Now recently there have been some changes related to the CalFresh program. What’s been going on there that has taken it from where it was to where it is right now? Amy: Well, two things have happened in the last year. One is in this state, and CalFresh is only considered in this state, those on SSI were able to apply and most of them get on as of June 1st and there had been 36 years of that not, that it wasn’t available to that population. Scott: And SSI? Social security? Amy: Supplemental Security Income. So there’s four different kinds of social security. SSA is your straight retirement. SSI is supplemental social security and then there’s SSDI, Social Security Disability Insurance. So SSI is one of those. Scott: And what’s so significant about the fact that people on SSI now qualify and couldn’t before? Amy: Generally they have a very limited income. Many are only on SSI. Right now it’s about $930 to $940, is kind of the average for one person. That’s what they’re living on per month. Otherwise, the SSI can supplement your SSA or your SSDI, the other forms of social security. So really, generally I’m seeing people with less than $1,500 a month on it so it’s a very limited income population. And in our county alone here in Sacramento, there was 66,000 folks on SSI as of last year. That’s a lot of people that have not been able to get CalFresh for many, many, many, many years. Scott: That is a lot of people. Amanda, describe for us the scope of hunger within our region that maybe many of us in our day to day lives are missing. Amanda: Sure. There’s a few different things that I hear very regularly from folks who come to the food bank to get food. One is underemployment. Folks are really struggling to find full time jobs that will help them make ends meet. And the other is the high cost of housing, so folks are really having a hard time either paying rent or keeping up with some of the increases that we see going on. Right now River City Food Bank is serving working families in ways we’ve never done before. So truly, people are struggling to make even the most basic of needs. Folks are having to make decisions between buying food and paying for things such as rent, utilities, child care, even medicine. Scott: Now this is interesting because when you say working families, most of the time I think many of us would think that the people who are coming to the food bank might be unemployed, might already be on some sort of public assistance or something like that. But you’re saying that people who are working full time jobs or part time jobs… Amanda: That’s right. Scott: … are still suffering what you call food insecurity. Amanda: That’s correct. I met a single mom last week named Christa. She came in with her young son and she’s been really struggling to find full time work. She needs benefits for her family and she needs food on the table and she had found a part time job and was doing some odd jobs to kind of make things work but was really struggling to find something that was full time. We see a lot of folks that come in working part time or full time but either way, they’re just having trouble paying for all of the things that need payment. Scott: You had mentioned a bit earlier about children and how children are impacted and are a growing part of the hungry or food insecure population. How does hunger impact kids? Amanda: There are so many studies and research that shows kids who don’t have enough to eat struggle mentally and physically. They’re more prone to different types of disease or diabetes, but the biggest thing, you know, we all know what it feels like to be hungry. You can’t concentrate, you can’t think, you can’t listen. Even sometimes things like sitting still can be difficult if you don’t have food in your stomach to really be there, be present and pay attention. Scott: When you look at the CalFresh program and you think about the families that are served, children, adults and all, when you say that you all serve a refugee population, how has the current state of enforcement or legal action related to immigration impacted people trying to access the services of the food bank in general but also your program? Amy: Well, I can tell you that people are more hesitant to take from, not only from food banks but from government. And so there’s been a hesitancy to even apply for some of these benefit programs because of the concern of public charge or if somebody in the family is working towards citizenship it might affect them. So there’s a lot of fear, there’s hesitation, not sure who they should trust and therefore I don’t think they’re seeking out as much as they normally would because of the environment. Scott: How do you and the people that you work with deal with that in terms of trying to get people to take advantage of the services that you all are helping to provide? Amy: Well first of all, we want to let them know currently, and I try to give them information that’s documented from the government to say this will not impact your process right now. There’s a lot in the media about concerns that heighten but some of it is not validated with actuality of what’s really happening. Scott: Tell us what you mean by that. Amy: In terms of public charge, there’s been a lot in the media in the last year about CalFresh, CalWorks, other programs, these public benefit programs becoming public charge, which means it can hinder someone who’s working on getting citizenship. Scott: I’m not sure, the term public charge means what? Amy: It’s something where if you’re gleaning from the government and it can be kind of a red flag to the government as you’re trying to get citizenship. And it can deter you from getting citizenship at times. I’m not super familiar with the public charge and all but it’s a big scare. So far, it hasn’t changed yet but there was a possibility. So the administration, our current administration, often can make statements without the activity backing it up yet and we fought that. We fought that last fall. And so right now, but it’s come up again, it’s come up again that it could be considered a public charge which means, again, as you’re applying, it’s kind of like a red check that this is somebody who has had to rely on the government to sustain themselves and so therefore can they sustain themselves once they become citizens or are they going to pull from public benefits? Do you see what I’m saying? Scott: Yeah. Amy: That’s kind of the concern. And the government is, current government is trying to say these people should not be pulling from these public benefits. Scott: Interesting, though, for obviously the CalFresh program, there is a use of public benefits. But then on the other side, from the food products that you receive through donations and other means, they’re not pulling from that. So how is it that the food bank is dealing with educating these populations so that that way they will still come in and feel that it’s a friendly place to access services? Amanda: Right. Well, River City Food Bank, we really pride ourselves around our core values which include dignity, compassion and respect. We are open six days a week to anyone needing our services and we don’t require that you show ID, proof of income. We want to make it as easy and respectful as possible for folks to come in and choose healthy options that meet the needs of their families. Scott: Now another thing that has been in the news recently is there’s been a conversation about reducing aid for able body adults. What’s that all about? Amanda: I’m going to let Amy talk a little bit about this one. It is related to CalFresh. Amy: When the recession came about around 2008, in the past to get what we call food stamps, those who are able bodied adults without dependents, single people without children, they were only able to get food stamps for three months out of a 36 month period. When the recession hit, without working. If you were working, you had to work at least 20 hours a week. We realize now that with the recession, there was a waiver to that and nationally every state had waivers so that people could get on the food stamps longer because they realized it was harder to find work. As unemployment have gone down, individual states have had that waiver lifted and California is the last state to have that waiver listed. Lifted, excuse me. And now within California, it’s by county. So depending on your county’s unemployment rate, and I don’t know what the exact rate has to be but I think it’s four or 5%, something around there, slowly counties are having this waiver lifted. So what that means is that able bodied, a-bods, able bodied adults without dependents, those 14 to, excuse me, 18 to 49, if they’re not working 20 hours, may have their CalFresh limited to only three months in a 36 month period. Scott: And are you hearing from some of the people that you’ve served, these, quote unquote, “a-bods,” that they’re fearful of this change? Amy: Yes, and I think we’re going to hear more and more as we get closer. April 1st is when this is supposed to happen. The Trump administration made that clear in December that it was going to cut all waivers. I think as we get closer to that date, I’ll hear more on that as far as people being concerned. Scott: And from the people that you deal with on a daily basis, any one of the individuals that have talked to you about this, what’s their story? Where it is that why they need continued help from CalFresh and wouldn’t be able to comply with this new requirement? Amy: I do find people who, again, are in and out of employment. And unfortunately it becomes, sometimes the young population, the young adults who are kind of going through jobs or the senior citizens who the social security is not enough so they’re trying to find part time jobs to supplement their social security, those are the folks that I’m finding can go in and out of being eligible for the CalFresh. Those are the folks that are concerned that if they can’t keep steady employment, they will be dropped off the program and it won’t be available because we’re talking 36 months. So you can only have it three months. Now if their situation changes and they do get employment for over the 20 hours a week, then they can get back on but it’s going through the system and figuring out how to get through the system and to be able to stay on CalFresh. Scott: Do you think, though, that, I mean playing the Devil’s advocate, is it necessarily an unfair requirement that someone who is able bodied and healthy, if the unemployment rate is low, should be able to take care of themselves and essentially leave those benefits for those who might actually be in greater need? Is that a fair statement? Amy: Well, we’re talking the working poor, so these folks that are working, even though they’re working, they are still struggling, as Amanda had alluded, in terms of the high rent and trying to find housing and trying to handle their medical bills and all of this puts a great pressure on their budget. So yes, some can’t work and that’s the other option in terms of this, is that it’s hard to find work and if you can’t work, it’s even harder. Scott: Amanda, if you were in front of the policymakers and decision makers in Washington who are bringing down mandates like this, if you were speaking to them right now, could you put a face or a story of someone that you’ve interacted with at your food bank that would illustrate the challenge that they face every day? Amanda: We, I mean we serve so many different people and all of the situations are really unique. I met a man named Ted a couple of weeks ago who came in and he was picking up food for 10 people. He told me for the longest time, it was his wife, his children, they both worked, they were doing okay. His mom wasn’t doing so well and couldn’t afford to go into assisted living so she moved in with them, so that was another person in the household. And recently his sister and her children also moved in because the rent had gotten so high where they were that they couldn’t stay. So he said, “You know, I work really, really hard but at the end of the day I don’t have enough to do all of these things and feed my family.” And I don’t think that story is uncommon. I think we see a lot of people who come in that are really, truly just trying to make ends meet. Scott: If you all didn’t exist, if the River City Food Bank was out of business tomorrow, what would be the impact to Sacramento? Amanda: I think the impact would be huge. We are the only food bank that’s open six days per week serving anyone in the county that needs our support. So folks truly depend on us. We’ve got a couple of locations, one in Arden Arcade, that really focuses on the refugee population that has resettled there. And our downtown facility is located right by the Department of Human Assistance. It’s right on the public transit line. So people really count on us and they count on the ability to come when they need us and where they need us. Scott: How do they find you? Amanda: I would say word of mouth mostly. We have a lot of folks who have been coming to us on and off for a while. Some people need to come more often. Some people come, as Amy said, when they’re between jobs, so we don’t see them as much. But our folks tend to talk with each other and share information. We certainly have information about River City Food Bank posted on various web sites and through 211, et cetera, but I think the biggest way people hear about us is through their friends and family. Scott: Don’t you find it ironic that here we are, this region is known as the Farm to Fork capital of the world but yet we have so many hungry here. Amy: Yes, absolutely. Yes, yes. Now our farmers markets are an area that we’re trying to get more people to participate in and CalFresh is a part of that. So that when you talk about Farm to Fork and what not, CalFresh in this county actually, go ahead, I’m sorry. Scott: No, tell us more about that. That’s fascinating. Amy: So what we’re trying to do is get people to use their CalFresh at farmers markets, not only to help them eat healthier but to sustain and help the farmers as well. So if you have CalFresh, which is on a card called a EBT card, you can go to one of the farmers markets that participates in this program and get extra money. So the idea is there’s grants that came about to help with this and so to encourage people to get the healthy, fresh food from the farmer, they’re given extra money, extra spending money at the farmers market. It’s only to be used at the farmers market. Scott: What a great idea. Amy: I know, yeah. Scott: What a great idea. Amy: Yeah. Amanda: We really pride ourselves on making sure that we’ve got healthy options for folks, so we work very closely with farmers at the farmers market and elsewhere to ensure that we can offer a minimum of 50% fresh fruits and vegetables to everyone that comes through our doors. Scott: Which raises the question, where do you get the food? Amanda: Right, right. We are very fortunate to have some really great relationships. We do partner with Sacramento Food Bank. We partner with a lot of grocery stores in the area. We also get government commodities. And to be honest with you, we have amazing community members that do food drives or pick fruit off their trees and bring that in, so we get donations from all over the place. Scott: And when you talk about the partners that you have, I don’t think that many people understand the system. So River City Food Bank, there’s an Elk Grove Food Bank, there’s a Sacramento Food Bank. Amanda: Right, right. Scott: How does all of this work? Amanda: Sure. Well I will tell you at the end of the day, we are all trying to feed people, so we have that in common and we all really do depend on each other. It’s a really strong partnership, but the way that it essentially works, Sacramento Food Bank is our Feeding America affiliate for this region and so they source food and make it available to agencies like River City Food Bank. And agencies like River City Food Bank, we take that food and distribute it directly to people who need it, so it’s kind of an indirect versus direct model. Scott: And in addition to the people that partner with you in terms of providing the food and all of that, what is the other piece of what makes the River City Food Bank go? Because you do a lot with a very small amount of people. Amanda: We do. We have such an incredible staff. We’re very small but mighty, but we’ve got a lot of people that give. So we have volunteers that come in every single day, we work with individuals and groups and we always welcome folks to come in and help where they can. We need all those hands to receive the food, to sort the food and actually to even distribute that food. Scott: Now how, when you talk about volunteers, how big is your complement of volunteers that you need in order to do all the things that you need to do and operate in all the places you need to operate? Amanda: Sure. Last year we had about 33,000 hours of volunteer time donated. Scott: 33,000. Amanda: Yes. Scott: Wow. Amanda: I say this every day, we could not function without a lot of volunteers. So we probably have on any given day a minimum of 20 people helping us. Scott: How do people get involved? Amy: Well there’s a variety of ways. They either come through sometimes and then decide they want to help out and or they get in a better situation but they remember what River City offered them. If they have needed to do community service hours, they can come and do that here. We get student groups, ROTC, yeah. Scott: I was just about to ask that. Amy: ROTC came yesterday. Sometimes if they need to do service, Jesuit comes sometimes, Luther Burbank comes, so that, Girl Scout troupes and things like that, but companies as well. We get companies that are, more and more companies are wanting to give back and so they’re offering, a team from their office will come in and give a day and so that’s another way that they do it. And then again, word of mouth. We have a lot of retired folks that, they hear what a great experience it is to give back and they really enjoy it. Scott: Actually, that’s what I’m most curious about. For the volunteers that participate, I want to know what’s in it for them? Amanda: Well, I think it is such feel good work. You have an opportunity as a volunteer to really interact with every single person that comes through our doors. And we find that a lot of people come in expecting to see a certain person and what they leave with is sort of an education about who uses a food bank. No person looks the same so it’s every age, it’s every color, it’s every walk and I think volunteers really get that hands on experience that makes them feel really good about giving back to the community. Scott: We were talking about the SSI population earlier. If you’re able bodied, you can get to one of your locations and your locations are, I know you have downtown Sacramento. Amy: It’s actually Midtown. Scott: Midtown. Well Midtown, my apologies. Midtown, Arden Arcade, and is there another one? Amy: No, just those two. Scott: Just those two, which is great if you’re mobile. But for like senior populations, people who are disabled, how do they access your services? Amy: I see three ways that they do that. One, we do have the public transportation so the bus line and light rail does come right by us, which is great. Some of them actually organize themselves at their senior living facilities or what not to get somebody to take a carload or a vanload. And then some have advocates or workers in the community that will bring them by their own transportation as well. And then some come by, friends and family that will bring them, so it really kind of depends but those are the ways I see them coming in. Yeah. Scott: And do you have to tailor your services sometimes to discrete populations because their needs may be a little bit different than the mainstream of who you serve? Amanda: I’m going to piggyback on what Amy said. We do have a couple of programs where we take food out into the community. We have a BackSnacks program that specifically serves kids at low income schools. Scott: Really? Amanda: Right now we’re working with nine different schools, yes. So the idea is to make sure they have enough food for the evenings and weekends when the school breakfast and lunch is unavailable. And we also have a program called Most Important Meal where we deliver food directly to seniors that may not be able to access that food otherwise. Scott: The kids program in the schools, how did you guys come up with that? Because it seems really logical when you state it. Amanda: Right. Scott: But it’s one that I think that most of us would miss in terms of where the need is. Amanda: Sure. Well, there’s a lot of kids that really depend on the subsidized school lunch and breakfast programs. They maybe wouldn’t eat otherwise. We were visiting a school not too long ago and one of the administrators told us, you know, it’s not strange to see a child at lunch putting food in their pockets because they might not have food later. So we know the need is there. We know that kids can’t be successful and thrive and have all the opportunities without having food in their bellies. Scott: And finally, if someone wants to get involved, maybe come out and help volunteer, give us the short what they should do. Amanda: Everything is available on our web site, rivercityfoodbank.org, and I would say if folks are interested we invite them and welcome them to stop by. They can take a tour, they can go on our web site, there’s a couple of forms they can download or they can call us directly to sign up. We’re always looking for volunteers, we’re always looking for people interested in hosting a food or fund drive, and we’d love to connect with the community. Scott: Wonderful. Thank you both for coming on the show and good luck to you and your work. Amanda: Thank you. Scott: All right. And that’s our show. Thanks to our guests and thanks to you for watching Studio Sacramento. I’m Scott Syphax, see you next time right here on KVIE. ♪♪ Scott Syphax: All episodes of Studio Sacramento, along with other KVIE programs, are available to watch online at kvie.org/video.

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