The Economics of Hunger

Inflation intensifies food insecurity in Sacramento.

food banks help feed the community
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Rising inflation is affecting every aspect of our lives, as the headlines—and, very likely, your own household budget—remind us every day. Nearly three years into the COVID-19 pandemic, vast numbers of Californians continue to struggle with the high cost of housing, food, gas, and childcare. Despite the state’s massive $49 billion budget surplus and the presence of several of the most valuable companies in the world, there are many residents who struggle to simply feed themselves and their children each day.

This essay was adapted from the Alta newsletter, delivered every Thursday.

High costs are also hitting groups like Neighbor Program, a two-year-old community-based, community-run organization in Sacramento. Explicitly modeled on the Black Panther Party, Neighbor Program proclaims its dedication to “serving the People & loving our neighbor through Revolutionary Pan-Afrikanism.” It does this through multiple programs aimed at feeding the hungry, including giving away bags of food to anyone in need.

“When we first started the program, we were at a place where we would have to pack up leftovers and deliver them to spaces outside of the direct community we serve in,” says Jordan McGowan, minister of programs and the founder of Neighbor Program. “Now we’re at a point where we consistently run out of food before the giveaway hours are done and we’re scrambling to buy more to make sure no one misses out. It’s been a marked increase.”

As a farming region and the capital of the fifth-largest economy in the world, Sacramento wouldn’t seem to be a place with food-access issues, yet in a recent Food System Resilience Poll, 16 percent of respondents said they experienced low to very low food security, and 25 percent said they’d participated in at least one food-assistance program in the past 12 months. Nearly 50 percent said they’d used their stimulus money for food purchases that they could not afford. Compared with the national food insecurity average of 10.5 percent reported by the United States Department of Agriculture, the numbers in Sacramento are alarming.

The Sacramento Food Bank, the largest food insecurity nonprofit organization in the city, says it’s seen a 40 percent increase in the need for its services since inflation rates started rising. The organization is also beginning to see a decrease in its ability to provide to those in need according to Kevin Buffalino, the group’s director of communications.

Then there’s Sacramento’s food deserts, another obstacle getting between vulnerable residents and a better, healthier quality of life.

According to the USDA, a food desert is considered a “low-income tract where a substantial number or substantial share of residents does not have easy access to a supermarket or large grocery store.” Overlaying Sacramento’s food desert map with the census tract makes one thing clear: the communities most affected by food deserts are predominantly Black and Brown communities.

“We don’t call it a food desert,” says Neighbor Program’s McGowan. “It’s not a food desert. Deserts are natural. It’s a food apartheid. It’s an intentional separation of resources from the people who are often dehumanized because of their race, class, social status, whatever thing that makes them different.”

Neighbor Program’s members believe that a community coming together is the most immediate solution to food scarcity, especially at a time when the economy is working against so many people’s needs. In addition to its free-food distribution, the group offers a breakfast program and has planted a garden with squash; peppers; herbs like cilantro, mint, and lavender; and other plants that can be eaten or used as medicine or for skin care.

“Inflation is a thing, for sure, but it’s always been a thing,” McGowan explains. “Whether the inflation goes up or down, people will always need food. No one should have to go without food. Right now, the system we have in place isn’t here to ensure people are taken care of. Which is why we do what we do. It’s almost genetic. Ancestral. When you uplift the ones who need it most, first, then everyone is uplifted.”•

Olivia Monahan is a Chicana mother, journalist, editor, educator, and community advocate She is an Ida B Wells Investigative Journalism Fellow Finalist for 2022.
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