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Ventura County

Nearly 1 in 10 Residents Relying on Food Banks

Hunger: Study says the number of local clients has grown slightly since 1997. But activists warn of a big increase.

November 15, 2001|MARGARET TALEV | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Nearly one in 10 Ventura County residents relied on a food bank for nourishment last year, and one in three of those were children, according to a study released Wednesday.

But the number of local food bank clients has grown only slightly since 1997, from 66,742 to 68,034, according to the national report commissioned by Chicago-based America's Second Harvest, the nation's largest organization of emergency food providers.

That actually represents a slight per capita decrease. The local segment of the report was based on interviews with 454 clients of food pantries and nonprofit groups supplied by Food Share, the food bank serving Ventura County.

But the past four years represented one of the most robust economic periods in Ventura County history. With the nation now in a recession and the county's boom over, activists fear the number of hungry people in the county could spike in the coming year.

"This sampling was done in January, before the economy started to slide," said Jim Mangis, executive director of Food Share. "Our agencies are definitely telling us anecdotally that they're seeing an increase in clients at their pantries."

Two-thirds of food bank users countywide are female, according to the study. About 45% are Hispanic and 8% are black; 83% are American citizens. Many are single mothers who work but cannot make ends meet. Of those surveyed, 45% said they had jobs, but 63% earned less than $12,000 a year.

In conjunction with the report's release, Food Share launched its annual holiday drive Wednesday. Its goal is to collect 250,000 pounds of food by Dec. 21 at drop-off points throughout the county, including Vons stores.

"The need exceeds our resources in terms of making sure no one ever goes hungry in our county," Mangis said. "We often run out of certain kinds of foods or specific foods we need: high-protein food and cereals and grains. And canned items are always in short supply."

County Insulated From Downturn

Economists say Ventura County has been insulated from the national downturn. Unemployment was at 4.8% last month, and while jobs dipped in construction, restaurant and retail sectors, there was still a net gain in jobs overall.

Those monthly job statistics, however, don't reflect the wage levels of those new jobs or how they compare with ever-rising residential costs in a county already short on affordable housing.

"Ventura County is still one of the stronger economies in California. We are not in a recession," said regional economist Mark Schniepp, director of the California Economic Forecast Project. "But it's no longer the case that if you can fog a mirror you can get a job. When it comes to labor markets, it's a little tougher now to find a higher-paying job."

Tom Johnson, 52, of Oxnard has learned that lesson over the past year. Since retiring from the Navy in 1993, the high school graduate, who supports his stay-at-home wife and two young sons, has worked mainly as a security guard and cook. His military pension covers the car payment and house payment but no more.

About a year ago he lost his position as a candy maker after his employer went bankrupt. Until this week, when he got a guard job paying $9.50 an hour, he couldn't find work for an hourly wage of more than $7.

"You just can't live on that for a family of four," Johnson said.

The food pantry at an Episcopalian church in Oxnard has been a lifeline for the family, Johnson said. "If it wasn't for them, we wouldn't be eating tonight," he added, pointing to the potatoes, oranges, cereal and canned roast beef he had picked up at the church.

Retired Veteran Living 'Day by Day'

"We're just living day by day. I don't know how we do it sometimes. Being a retired Navy veteran, you think it would be a lot more Easy Street. A lot of people don't realize how hard it is."

Food Share serves 217 food distribution groups throughout the county, including church pantries, AIDS organizations, homeless shelters, nonprofit groups such as the Salvation Army and youth programs such as Boys & Girls clubs.

Mangis said he believes that the number of county residents assisted by his food bank each year is closer to 100,000 and that the national report reflects lower numbers because it interviews only about half of Food Share's distributors.

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