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Millions Feel the Sting of Hunger

November 08, 2002|Carla Rivera | Times Staff Writer

Henry Cardenas, a 68-year-old veteran of the Korean War, lives on Social Security and a small military pension. But the Venice resident cannot afford to buy meat and fresh vegetables to feed himself.

Ethel Selvester, a 78-year-old former nun, social worker and attorney, was able to pay for meals only by falling three months behind in her rent.

They are among the 2.2 million low- to middle-income adults in California who struggle to keep food on the table, according to a new statewide study released this week by UCLA and the nonprofit California Food Policy Advocates.

According to the study, more than 28% of low-income residents say they cannot afford a nutritious diet and a third of them experience actual pangs of hunger. Despite its wealth, California ranked 12th among the states in measures of the worst food insecurity, according to a separate study using U.S. Agriculture Department data.

Selvester never dreamed she would wind up so poor that she'd have to worry about having enough to eat in her old age. An articulate woman who enrolled in law school at the age of 46, she worked for social causes and later did bankruptcy cases but was self-employed without a pension.

She now lives on $770 monthly in Social Security payments and disability benefits for health problems. She gets a bag of free groceries each week from a food pantry at St. Joseph Center in Venice.

"It's made the difference between a decent meal," Selvester said. "I've been able to have meat and chicken and a balanced diet."

It's not just the poorest Californians who are hurting: More than half of adults who lacked sufficient food had jobs; 14% were retired elderly people on fixed incomes; 42% were low-income single adults with children; and 29% were low-income pregnant women.

Food insecurity is highest in the Central Valley, one of the most abundant agricultural regions in the world, the study found. Forty-one percent of low-income adults in Tulare County and nearly 36% of such adults in Fresno County reported they lacked sufficient food.

In Los Angeles County, more than 30% of low-income adults -- representing an estimated 777,000 people -- lack enough food or experience actual hunger.

Rural Northern California counties such as Shasta (35%), Napa (31%) and Solano (30%) also reported high levels of food need.

George Manalo-LeClair, director of legislation and policy for Food Policy Advocates and a co-author of the study, said the report "gives us a good picture of hunger, particularly of local hunger, and shows that it exists in every community in California."

The study is the largest statewide examination of hunger ever performed, its authors say, and was conducted as part of UCLA's California health interview survey. More than 55,000 adults drawn from every county were randomly telephoned and interviewed between November 2000 and September 2001. The data were derived from households with incomes below 200% of the poverty level, which would be about $17,720 for one person or $36,200 for a family of four.

The study cites the link between hunger, heightened susceptibility to disease and related societal costs of medical and mental health care.

Children living in households without sufficient food, for example, tend to experience more school absences, suspensions and poor mental development. Adolescents in those households have higher rates of depression and are twice as likely to have seen a psychiatrist, according to the study.

"The consequences are way beyond our conception of people going hungry, to encompass such things as the social functioning of children and medical costs," said study co-author Gail G. Harrison, a UCLA professor in the School of Public Health. She spoke this week at a Santa Monica conference sponsored by the nonprofit group Mazon, where the study was released.

The survey also uncovered wide disparities in the use of federal food assistance programs. Among study participants who experienced hunger, more than 80% do not receive food stamps, even though they are eligible by earning below 130% of the federal poverty level.

Advocates have long complained that the process of applying for food stamps -- which provide recipients with an average of $78 monthly worth of food supplies -- is too complicated and discourages many.

There is a huge economic impact. According to Food Policy Advocates, increasing the rate of food stamp participation in Los Angeles County from the current 45% of those eligible to 83% would generate an additional $38 million in monthly food benefits.

California's program has been particularly error-prone and state auditors are examining the requirement that applicants be finger-imaged to determine its cost-effectiveness. Additionally, many people do not realize that their families are eligible for food stamps or cannot take time off from work to complete the paperwork.

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