FIND Food Bank volunteer Jo Fedorchuk prepares food to give away during a mobile market outside the Palm Desert Community Center, at 43900 San Pablo Ave. The market is held there every third Monday of the month. Credit: Maria Sestito

Not having enough food to eat, or worrying about where your next meal will come from, or only having access to unhealthy food—nobody wants to be in any of these situations.

It’s called food insecurity. The United States Department of Agriculture defines food insecurity as a lack of consistent access to enough food for every person in a household to live an active, healthy life.

Food insecurity can be lifelong—something we’re born into—or come on suddenly due to a job loss, an expensive medical diagnosis, the death of a breadwinner or even inflation. Rising costs without increases in pay and benefits essentially mean that money being earned isn’t worth as much, which means dollars don’t go as far as they did before.

Anyone can end up in a position of food insecurity. I remember the embarrassment I felt as a child when I realized that not everyone at school was getting a free lunch. Because of it, sometimes I skipped lunch altogether. We usually had plenty of food at home, though, thanks to benefits previously called “food stamps.”

I’ll never forget the shame I felt when, as a college graduate working full-time at a newspaper, I found myself needing to go to the food pantry. I wasn’t even sure I was allowed to be there. Did I have to meet a certain income threshold? Was it OK that I had a hefty car payment? Should I try to get a roommate first? I didn’t want to take food away from other people who might need it more, like families with small children or older people on fixed incomes.

I was supposed to be able to feed myself—but I was making less than $35,000 and living in the San Francisco Bay Area. I swallowed my pride and went. The only person worried about what I looked like and wondering whether I deserved the help was me. It was easier the second time. By the third time, my discomfort was mostly gone.

That was in 2017. Since then, the economic situation for a lot of people has only gotten worse thanks to the pandemic.

In the Coachella Valley, food insecurity rates have increased significantly since 2019, according to community survey results recently released by Health Assessment and Research for Communities (HARC), a nonprofit based in Palm Desert. More than 14% of adults and 14% of children either skipped meals or reduced the size of their meals last year because there wasn’t enough money for food. Nearly 37,000 seniors reported spending less money on food to pay for other basic needs—and 2,625 went a whole day without eating for the same reason.

Prior to the pandemic, FIND Food Bank, a regional food bank warehoused in Indio, was serving about 90,000 people of all ages each month. At the height of the pandemic, that number increased to 190,000.

FIND Food Bank, senior centers, community organizations, nonprofits, health-care centers and individuals all stepped up to help fill this need. Donations come from all over, including many of the area’s major grocery stores, the agricultural community, and residents cleaning out their pantries or picking the fruit off their trees.

“Everybody thought when we went into the recovery phase, after the pandemic, that we would go back to those 90,000 numbers, but we didn’t,” Debbie Espinosa, president and CEO of FIND Food Bank, told me. “We’re still roughly serving 125,000 to 150,000 people, on average, every month.”

Despite improving unemployment rates, the cost of living remains high. As Espinosa said, and I personally experienced, just because someone has a job, that doesn’t mean they can afford everything they need to survive. Their job may not pay enough or provide benefits. Even if they have two or three part-time jobs, the instability of their schedule may mean they need to spend more on child care or transportation.

Just because someone has a job, that doesn’t mean they can afford everything they need to survive. Their job may not pay enough or provide benefits.

“The majority of people who we serve are actually working, and they’re not homeless,” Espinosa said. “They may be employed—over 97% of the people that we serve are actually employed—but when you have these economic factors that are absolutely skyrocketing, they’re not able to make ends meet, and that’s where the food-insecurity rates continue to stay high.

“What the food bank does is, we ensure that they have the food to plug those gaps,” she said. “Where they would have had to spend money on food, they can direct it to those other resources that they may not be able to get for free.”

In addition to distribution sites across the Coachella Valley and the Inland Empire, FIND Food Bank has 44 mobile community pantries that seek to literally serve people where they are.

“We work with and we find community partners to be able to distribute food to so they can get the food out to clients in those areas,” Espinosa said.

For the last three years, for example, the regional food bank has run a small mobile pantry in La Quinta’s low- and fixed-income communities, she said.

Those community partners and FIND Food Bank often work to get people connected to other financial-assistance services like CalFresh.

According to HARC data, 17% of local adults received food assistance from such sources last year, and more than 15% relied on federal programs to purchase food. This includes CalFresh (also known as food stamps, or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, SNAP), and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC).

Both eligibility and benefits under SNAP were expanded during the pandemic, which meant more Californians were getting more money to buy food, helping alleviate some food insecurity. However, those extra SNAP benefits came to a halt March 1. The U.S. Census Bureau has already found that the end of these extra benefits has resulted in increased food insecurity.

“The increased demand really means that the programs and services we have in place to serve people who are food insecure need to not only be sustained, but expanded, because this is not going away anytime soon,” said Jenna LeComte-Hinely, CEO at HARC, earlier this year.

Some providers and clinics, including DAP Health in Palm Springs, are trying to address the problem as soon as possible by giving those who don’t meet a certain threshold a bag of food—right then and there.

“Everything is interconnected,” said Steven Henke, a DAP Health spokesperson.

Providers at DAP Health are trying to normalize the conversation about nutrition by making sure all clients have access to the food they need. These types of screenings are recommended by the National Academy of Medicine, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the American Diabetes Association; however, researchers at UC Davis found that food-insecurity screenings in health care settings had decreased.

FIND Food Bank volunteers load food into a car during a mobile market outside the Palm Desert Community Center by Civic Center Park. Credit: Maria Sestito

Sometimes patients think “somebody else needs it more than they do,” Henke said, noting how difficult it can be to ask for help. The embarrassment, shame or stigma a person may feel might prevent them from answering honestly or from seeking or accepting assistance.

Said Espinosa: “I think there are a lot of people who believe they’re going to be judged if they go and get services. And that’s the stigma that they’re afraid of, even though all of our food bank partners … make it a warm and welcoming place.”

Her belief is that people who ask for help are actually brave—and I happen to agree.

“As a community, we’re getting better,” Espinosa said. “We’re destigmatizing it by showing that there is community support for people—and there should not be any embarrassment, because everybody falls on hard times sometimes.”

Maria Sestito is an award-winning journalist and writer living in the Coachella Valley. Her work has appeared in publications across the country, including USA Today, and she previously covered health...

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *