MONTEREY — As food, fuel and rent prices continue to increase across the country, food assistance organizations in Monterey County have begun to see a rise in need.
“We’re seeing more clients than we did pre-pandemic,” said Melissa Kendrick, CEO and executive director of the Food Bank for Monterey County. “We’re seeing more working families in our lines, both parents working, (which is) a disturbing trend. We’re seeing a lot of seniors that we haven’t seen before. So, I think the challenge is as long as food and fuel and rent continue to be affected by the inflationary elements, we expect our numbers to be quadruple what they were before the pandemic.”
During Wednesday’s county media briefing, key community leaders and members of food assistance organizations discussed various food resources available to the community.
According to the Food Bank for Monterey County, 1 in 4 people in Monterey County are hungry, with 34% of county residents experiencing food insecurity.
While Monterey County is one of the most productive agricultural regions in the world, those who tend and harvest the produce are least likely to be able to afford it. Levels of hunger and poverty are disproportionately higher in Monterey County in Latino and farmworker communities.
The food bank serves 160,000 individuals each month or over 60,000 families. During Wednesday’s briefing, Kendrick outlined some of the food bank’s programs in place to help distribute food to those who need it most.
Mobile Produce Pantries visit dozens of schools, libraries and other community gathering places to provide a free farmers market open to all families. From April to October, the Family Market Program provides fresh produce and dairy goods for free to low-income county residents. Kendrick also mentioned the organization’s plans to build a five-acre farm and recent launch of a diaper program that provides monthly diapers and groceries to mothers.
The food bank distributes food weekly on Wednesdays at 980 Fremont St. in Monterey from 3-5 pm, and on Tuesdays in Seaside at 1475 La Salle Ave. from 9:30-10:30 am and at 390 Elm Ave. from 4- 6 pm In Marina, food is distributed on the first Monday of every month at 188 Seaside Circle from 9:30-10:30 am and on the third Saturday of every month at 3305 Abdy Way from 10 am-noon.
CalFresh is another popular service offered at many food assistance organizations and the largest food program in California. The program, known federally as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), provides monthly food benefits to low-income individuals and families. The amount of benefits a household receives depends on size and income. Monthly benefits are provided via an electronic benefit transfer (EBT) card, which can be used to purchase food at any grocery store or market that accepts EBT cards.
According to Yaneth Venegas, the outreach coordinator for the Department of Social Services Community Benefits Branch, there are a total of 22,202 CalFresh cases in the county as of July.
Venegas explained that the branch also refers individuals and families to additional resources, regardless of whether they qualify for the CalFresh program.
Monterey County Women, Infants and Children (WIC) is another state food assistance program available to pregnant or breastfeeding women, postpartum women, and infants and children 5 years old and younger. In addition to benefits to purchase food, the program provides nutrition education classes and breastfeeding support, healthy recipes and resource referrals for women, infants, toddlers and children. Other caregivers and guardians may also apply for the program for the children they are raising.
“We’re always partnering and working together to see how we can maximize participation and reach,” said Niaomi Hrepich, director of Monterey County’s WIC program. “We’ve definitely — like Melissa said — had so many families that never needed aid before, but because rents are so high … and food costs and transportation becoming so high, we’ve been seeing a lot of working families as well qualify for WIC.”
In order to be eligible for many of the food assistance programs within the county, individuals must be US citizens or legal permanent residents. According to the 2019-20 Monterey County Legislative Program document, Monterey County has the highest percentage of non-citizens of any California county, at 22%. These individuals do not qualify for emergency aid or other necessary resources.
Ulises Cisneros-Abrego, nutrition education coordinator for Catholic Charities, pointed out that if parents are not citizens or legal permanent residents but are looking to apply for food assistance, they can put their children on the application.
Catholic Charities offers nutrition education, food bank distributions and garden support at residential sites, schools and parishes. Cisneros-Abrego explained that the garden support has been especially popular during the pandemic. The program currently operates six gardens but is hoping to expand to 20-30 gardens in the upcoming year.
“We really love doing the garden work because it allows people at residential sites or even at schools — as students — to grow their own food and have access to food,” he said.
Wednesday’s briefing aimed to reduce the stigma associated with food insecurity and to encourage the community to reach out immediately for assistance.
“There is no shame in needing food,” concluded Kendrick. “The best investment that we can make is (to) ensure that everyone in this country has access to healthy food and a sufficient supply. No good eats from hungry people.”