AS THE MEAL DISTRIBUTION draws to a close on a late, sunny afternoon in San Jose, Loaves & Fishes Family Kitchen volunteers start packing what’s left in bags: pre-packaged hot meals of fish and rice, chips, bottles of water, bread and other groceries, sandwiches and hygiene kits — a toothbrush, toothpaste, body wash, shampoo, deodorant and a napkin.
They notice Timothy Mansfield cycle toward them and greet him after he sits at a table, waiting.
“I grab what’s left after the distribution,” he said. Mansfield experienced homelessness a few years ago and knows what it is like to go hungry. He knows the people who need the food and where the encampments are. Every day for the last two years, he has cycled around the city, distributing the food he picks up.
“It kind of fills a part of my day and gives me a reason to wake up in the morning,” he said.
“It kind of fills a part of my day and gives me a reason to wake up in the morning.”Timothy Mansfield, volunteer
The meal distribution site at Goodwill Industries is one of Loaves & Fishes’ daily distribution sites giving out an average of 300 meals a day. Most recipients are people experiencing homelessness, low-wage workers from around the area, and Goodwill employees getting off work. Like Mansfield, many others take multiple packs of food and distribute it in their neighborhoods.
But Mansfield and Loaves and Fishes are just one part of a much larger network of individuals and nonprofits working with a common goal: to alleviate hunger and improve access to nutritious food in Santa Clara County. From kitchens to food banks, people, mostly on a voluntary basis and through collaborative efforts, are trying to build a community of caring and address the problem of hunger head on.
A week before the pandemic hit in 2020, Christopher Bacon, an associate professor at Santa Clara University and an environmental social scientist studying food systems co-organized a South Bay Food Justice Workshop.
“We ended up with about 75 people from about 30 different organizations across the South Bay in particular, San Mateo, Santa Clara County,” Bacon said. After the lockdown took effect, the group continued to meet every two weeks, understanding the problem, responding together and sharing resources.
More than three years later, this first-of-its-kind, coalition-oriented food justice workshop, attended by organizations like Veggielution, Second Harvest, Fresh Approach among others, continues to meet once a month to discuss food insecurity and devise solutions.
Scope of the problem
The problem of hunger in Silicon Valley is mirrored across the country. One hundred percent of U.S. counties are home to some percentage of people facing food insecurity, according to the relief organization Feeding America. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) found that 34 million people including 9 million kids were food insecure in 2021.
The 2022 Silicon Valley Pain Index found that 46 percent of children in Silicon Valley live in families that don’t earn enough to provide the basics: food, shelter and clothing and 51 percent of these are Latinx.
The USDA defines a food desert as a census tract with low income and low access to a grocery store for affordable, fresh and healthy food. A 2022 Community Health Needs Assessment by El Camino Health shows there are significantly fewer super-centers — large discount department stores also selling grocery — and club stores selling fresh produce in Santa Clara County: almost half of the state’s average. (According to Bacon, the USDA definition of food deserts is tricky, because if they are defined based on proximity to a supermarket, then the solution to every food desert is a supermarket).
To tackle the problem, the Food Justice workshop concluded that a grassroots base of citizens dedicated to alleviating hunger is essential to support systemic reform. The workshop noted a strong desire for collaboration among volunteers and professionals to exchange knowledge and resources in a networked approach that appreciates the diverse cultural practices of the community.
The collaborative efforts are not only putting food on the tables of those in need; they also embody a broader mission to spread awareness and foster community support and empowerment. For some, providing food isn’t enough; helping people to grow is just as important.
It’s about empowerment
Every day before the meals are served, the participants at Recovery Café San José express gratitude.
There are not many places for people like us, they say.
The Recovery Café works with people who experience trauma from: substance abuse, being unhoused, coming out of incarceration or domestic abuse situations, racial disparities and particularly mental health issues, said Kathy Cordova, executive director.
“So sometimes people come in and say, give me lunch, and it’s like: No, come and be part of the community. Because you get to connect with people and help your healing in that way.”Kathy Cordova, Recovery Café San Jose
The café supports people on a path to healing with a free membership program, with support groups. To be a member, a person has to be alcohol and drug-free for 24 hours and attend a group each week. The other component is to give back to the community by mopping the floors, wiping tables or helping in the kitchen.
Five days every week, the cafe offers self-served breakfast and volunteer-served hot lunch to the members and almost 90 percent of the raw ingredients are donations from the Second Harvest Food Bank. To bring people into trauma recovery, food was a very important incentive, Cordova said. According to her, around 200 people come to the cafe every day and in the last two years, she has seen a rising need, with the number of meals distributed consistently growing.
“People lost jobs, people had lost opportunities to be able to get readily healthy food,” Cordova said. “So, our ability to provide the meals kind of made a difference for folks.”
For Mario Charles, the cafe is a home away from home, especially because he gets to eat with people who care about each other. He’d been going there for two months since he got out of jail. Having limited mobility due to an incident with the police last year where he suffered a back injury, the cafe’s location is perfect for him.
“This is my safe spot because without this place I’d probably be on the streets,” Charles said.
“What we’re really about is building community,” Cordova said. “So sometimes people come in and say, give me lunch, and it’s like: No, come and be part of the community. Because you get to connect with people and help your healing in that way.”
According to Cordova, the cafe is built where there used to be a soup kitchen serving unhoused people. But it was not helping break the cycles, people weren’t moving on or growing, “only filling their tummies.”
The first Recovery Cafe started in Seattle, and the model served as an inspiration to turn the soup kitchen into something that heals people while they eat. Although food is a small part of all the programs the cafe offers, healthy, nutritious food has been an essential part of the people’s journey, empowering them physically, mentally, and financially.
Charles spends six to seven hours in the cafe every day and volunteers for different tasks. What little he can do makes him feel good about himself, he said. Currently, he is excited about his plans to make earrings for sale with the help of a couple of people at the cafe.
Like Recovery Cafe, others working on the issue of hunger talk about focusing on underserved and minority communities and the economically disadvantaged.
lauren Ornelas, the founder of the Food Empowerment Project, refers to food insecurity as food apartheid, reflecting the view that some communities are hard hit and others not.
In 2009, the Project did a food availability study in Santa Clara County to investigate the situation in different communities, asking questions about stores’ open times, signage in the windows, and types of things available in the various communities.
It found that in lower-income areas, convenience and liquor stores had often expired food items, or dusty and dented cans. Some items didn’t have prices on them, putting non-English speaking people at a disadvantage.
“The community members would talk about how it felt to find their food moldy, to find the food, fruit and vegetables not being very good. And how that made them feel unworthy.”lauren Ornelas, Food Empowerment Project
“The community members would talk about how it felt to find their food moldy, to find the food, fruit and vegetables not being very good. And how that made them feel unworthy,” Ornelas said. They also found that immigrants felt they were eating healthier in their home countries because they were used to cooking with fresh produce there.
Well before COVID-19, in 2017, a study led by Bacon looked at the rise of food banks trying to meet the need in Santa Clara County. It found that although government and non-government agencies provided substantial support for low-income people, the problem of food insecurity persisted.
Not surprisingly, the study found statistically significant correlations linking poverty, unemployment, and home renting (vs. ownership) to higher levels of food insecurity.
Ornelas agrees. The situation in the last fourteen years hasn’t changed much. Communities must be empowered and self-sustaining to have a well-functioning food system, she said, and that includes growing their food.
“The more that we connect with the land, the more apt we are to want to protect it,” she said. “The more we help children see fruits and vegetables grow locally and taste them locally, the better off we are.”
One positive result of the pandemic was a burst of interest in food gardening.
A survey conducted by researchers at the University of California at Davis, along with international partners, found that people turned to local gardening to combat food insecurity, but also to improve their quality of life. Gardeners interviewed in the survey expressed heightened experiences of joy, beauty and freedom in garden spaces.
“One of my colleagues did a study and found slightly higher consumption rates of fresh fruits and vegetables for those that have backyard gardens,” Bacon said. “And our own work in Central America again and again, we’ve seen farmers that grow a wider diversity of products, eat more diverse diets.”
In downtown San Jose, Garden to Table Silicon Valley — a one-acre, nonprofit urban farm — draws people from all over Santa Clara County and at the heart of it are people seeking community and connection with others on a deeper level outdoors and with their food system, according to Kalyn Simon, board chair for the organization.
Garden to Table provides free programs to people with diverse backgrounds and age groups. They learn skills and tools to grow food and they take the farm produce, as much as they want, home.
Ayana Moore, a senior at San Jose State University, came to the farm to get involved in the community last November and stuck because she fell in love with it.
“I also wanted to learn how to grow my own food because I believe that we shouldn’t have to rely so much on capitalism in order to thrive and be happy in our lives,” she said. “I think something like this where it’s just a community farm, everyone working together and teaching each other skills on growing food and helping us be more self-sufficient, takes us out of that kind of enslavement to the system.”
According to Simon, the farm is an accessible place to get local organic food. It empowers people to be a part of their food system and not be limited by what they can traditionally afford.
“You can have autonomy by, if I give you a seed, if I give you a seedling, if I give you a container and some soil to plant in, you can now grow that at home,” she said.
Garden to Table has seen a rise in school trips to the farm. And among other collaborations, one is with Recovery Café, where the cafe learned to harvest microgreens and use them in the kitchen. Individuals at the cafe also learned to plant, started doing that at home and brought the produce to the cafe.
This is not the only and the best solution for food insecurity, Simon says, but it is a part of it. It empowers people because they now have resources.
According to Bacon, such efforts are part of a resilient regional food system. Apart from the urban farms and community gardens, the other key participants, he said, like the food educators, people working at food pantries and the distributors, all have roles to play in the process.
Second Harvest, for example, distributes food through a network of nearly 400 partners at more than 900 sites across Santa Clara and San Mateo counties. Nonprofits and organizations serving a low-income population apply to be members of the food bank and receive food free of charge to provide to their recipients.
According to Leslie Bacho, Second Harvest CEO, nearly three-quarters of the food goes to Santa Clara County and about 50 percent just to San Jose alone.
“Before the pandemic, we were serving about a quarter million people every month,” Bacho said. “And then that jumped to a half million people a month during the pandemic.”
According to the 2023 Pain Index report, Silicon Valley is a region of wealth disparity. Only eight individuals or households, i.e., 0.001 percent of households own $260 billion in total wealth, which is six times more than the total wealth of the bottom 50 percent of the region, or about 500,000 households, combined.
“With the pandemic, what we saw is just a widening of that income inequality,” Bacho said. Low-wage workers, people of color, women and single moms were disproportionately impacted. Although the number of recipients dropped 18 months ago, when inflation hit a little over a year ago, they started to climb again.
Bacho said stigma has been a huge barrier, stopping people from coming out to get food. That changed during the pandemic as people saw lines of recipients at food distribution sites. However, it remains an issue and people often hesitate to talk about it.
To combat that, organizations like Hunger at Home and Loaves & Fishes emphasize the need to make friends with the recipients and ensure they’re served with respect.
“When people come to our sites, we don’t know their story,” said David Hott, CEO of Loaves & Fishes. Providing meals with dignity is one reason more people are coming to Loaves and Fishes, Hott believes.
“That’s why we don’t qualify any of our guests. And it’s why we call our guests our guests because that’s who they are,” Hott said. “So, these are small things that have a layered effect and it’s all about the environment that we try to create that says to anyone in need of a meal that you are worthy of support and we’re here to support you in that endeavor.”
Something that people don’t realize about hunger, according to Gisele Bushey, senior advisor to Loaves & Fishes, is that most of the people are families with children, seniors, or veterans struggling to make ends meet. Bushey said 36 percent of the people are children, so they have serving sites near or at schools as well.
And it’s not just young children. According to the Pain Index, the number of visits to San Jose State University Food Pantry rose by 3,855 unique students in the last academic year, a 25 percent rise.
“So, it’s really bigger than just food. For me, it’s the spirit in which we sit at a table, and we eat a meal together.”David Hott, Loaves & Fishes
“When I was growing up, my father was a carpenter who helped build this valley,” Hott said. “There were what we call feast or famine, where there were moments in time where this valley would be out of work. And my father would send us to go help him find food in dumpsters. And that would be food that we would eat at the dinner table. I’ve experienced it before.”
This experience stays with a person, Bushey said, while reminiscing about her parents not eating so she and her brother could. It changes their outlook on what it means to feel secure in one’s community.
“When we remove that [community] as an option for people, that really negatively impacts the human condition,” Hott said. “So, it’s really bigger than just food. For me, it’s the spirit in which we sit at a table, and we eat a meal together.”
Food that’s relevant
Bacon said the root causes of food insecurity consist of disparities by race, class and often ethnicity in who has access to and is consuming healthy food and nutritious diets. Additionally, seniors are more likely to face hunger if they identify as Black, Latino, or Native American; have lower incomes; or have a disability, according to Feeding America. In 2021, 5.5 million seniors aged above 60 faced hunger in the country.
“We generally see that low-income communities and communities of color, Latinx, Black, Native American in particular are more likely to have higher levels of food insecurity and lower levels of consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables, which are key,” Bacon said. “And there can also be associated challenges with access to culturally relevant foods.”
The Senior Nutrition Program, by Santa Clara County, works with cities and community-based organizations to provide healthy and nutritious food to older adults either by providing spaces where they can gather, socialize and eat or by providing resources like bus, bus passes or gifts cards for gas for those who are unable to come to a site.
They also have services to deliver meals for those homebound and to match their ethnic needs. Vandana Puri, interim program manager of the program, said they have smaller centers that provide Japanese, Portuguese, Chinese, and Vietnamese meals.
The program has provided 1.7 million meals in the last fiscal year, around 750,000 meals were delivered to people’s homes and 16,000 older adults are unique in the program, Puri said. It grew dramatically during the pandemic, almost threefold.
Forty-eight percent of people that the program serves are living below the federal poverty level, 31 percent of people live alone and 73 percent of people are BIPOC. There were 4,168 new people enrolled last year and 52 percent of people are above the age of 75.
“So, we’re really addressing the need among the most fragile people in the community,” Puri said.
As part of their annual survey last year, they found out that almost 50 percent of their participants were food insecure.
The Older Americans Act established in 1974 was an effort to address the socialization needs of older adults in the community along with their meals, Puri explained. So once people were depressed and at home, they were not eating and were more at risk of hospitalization, entering a vicious cycle.
“A lot of people don’t understand that when older adults end up in the hospital, the first reason is that they were malnourished, that they just don’t have enough nutrition,” she said.
“A lot of people don’t understand that when older adults end up in the hospital, the first reason is that they were malnourished, that they just don’t have enough nutrition.”Vandana Puri, Senior Nutrition Program
Founded in 1974, the Senior Nutrition Program has been one part of the county’s solution to hunger in the region. In May 2021, the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors approved a Food Systems Workplan Report, aiming to address gaps and improve coordination within the countywide food system.
The seven goals of the workplan include enhancing food system coordination and leadership, increasing community engagement toward greater food sovereignty, and improving food security and public health through access to nutritious, culturally relevant, and affordable food, among others.
According to a progress report last year, one of the primary accomplishments was the Public Health Department applying for a CDC grant which when approved would involve contracting community-based organizations to engage residents of East San Jose and Gilroy in identifying gaps in the food system and implementing solutions.
A fickle future of food
Bacon’s 2017 study was conducted in collaboration with Second Harvest, the largest provider of food to the needy in Silicon Valley, and he was surprised to see a massive operation of around 300 food distribution sites in the county where almost 85 percent of census tracts in need had a food pantry nearby. Despite the efforts, food insecurity remains a difficult struggle that got worse after COVID-19.
Second Harvest currently serves around 500,000 people every month.
At one of its free grocery distribution sites, Hank Lopez Community Center, people line up across the parking lot with shopping carts. The location serves 250-275 households on average every month. Last month, Hank Lopez distributed 14,664 pounds of food.
According to the recipients, fresh food has improved their wellness. For those with health issues and/or those who cannot work, the location is a primary food source.
From July 2021 to June 2022, Second Harvest distributed an average of 11 million pounds of food. To keep up with the demand, the organization saw two times increase in expenses in the last fiscal year compared to the previous.
Second Harvest also helps people sign up for CalFresh, a California program that offers monthly food benefits to those in need. But according to Bacho, it is not adjusted for the local cost of living or of food, so a person must be very low-income to be eligible in Silicon Valley.
In addition, while everyone was eligible and could receive the maximum benefit amount during the pandemic, the temporary flexibilities stopped in March. As a result, she said, some households went from receiving $280 to $25 a month. Food banks and pantries, now seeing increased need, are struggling to keep up as they lose funding.
“It’s so sad that I have to make a decision from a financial perspective to reduce the meals that we can produce and bring out to the communities that we serve,” Loaves & Fishes’ Hott said. “So, I’m fighting that. We’re fighting to find funding so we can keep the activity going.”
The cost-cutting decisions are hurting the collaborations as partner nonprofits get less food to distribute to their clients.
For example, the Unhoused Response Group (URG) collects around 150 meals, bottles of water and treats from Loaves & Fishes kitchen to distribute among encampments throughout the city. It hopes that the kitchen continues to get paid for by the county and the city to be able to continue providing the same number of meals to URG.
“But then the question is, how do you secure it? How does this right become a tangible reality? So that everybody every day has access to sufficient, nutritious and culturally preferred food to eat.”Christopher Bacon, environmental social scientist
According to Bacon, there’s enough food to feed everybody but the problem is with the distribution. Another underlying challenge, he said, is the continued perception of food as a commodity and the debate about it being a right.
“California did declare a human right to water, which is a pretty significant move, and it could declare a right to food,” he said. “But then the question is, how do you secure it? How does this right become a tangible reality? So that everybody every day has access to sufficient, nutritious and culturally preferred food to eat. And that is a significant challenge and also an amazing opportunity to pull on the wealth of creativity, cultural diversity and richness that could help make that happen.”
Food banks or kitchens meant to be temporary emergency programs have instead been going on for decades, according to Bacon.
Food insecurity is a deeper-rooted problem, he said, and for those like him who believe in the human right to food, there is a desire to meet the needs today while working on the broader systemic changes that eliminate the causes of food insecurity in the medium to long term.
It’s hard to imagine a magic bullet, a special technology to solve this, he said, but each effort is part of the solution.