Santa Monica is home to four Farmers' Markets where shoppers can purchase the freshest produce directly from those who grow it. (File photo)

The nation has made noticeable strides since the economic downturn of 2008, but don’t tell Chris Baca.

The executive director of Meals on Wheels West said his organization is busier than ever meeting demand for its services.

In the fiscal year that ended June 30, the locally based nonprofit delivered 27-percent more meals than it did in the previous fiscal year.

And Baca envisions another jump in the year ahead, with Meals on Wheels West expecting to deliver upwards of 100,000 meals.

“There’s hidden hunger here on the Westside, in Santa Monica in particular,” he said. “Baby boomers are retiring, and a lot of them don’t have enough money put away. Their insurance might not be in great shape. It becomes, ‘Do I buy medicine or do I buy food?’ It’s very tough out there.”

Baca’s observations are mirrored by a report this month from the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health that paints an alarming picture of food insecurity in the region.

Outright hunger is arguably the more visible issue, affecting people who also might be homeless. But food insecurity is widespread as well, weighing on families that scrape by while trying to manage the costs of rent, utilities, health care and other living expenses.

Food insecurity includes everything from disrupted eating patterns and reduced food intake to a lack of dietary quality, variety or desirability, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture definitions. Officials note that food insecurity is regularly associated with obesity because people in poverty are more likely to consume processed foods that are high in sugar and fat content.

The prevalence of food insecurity rose dramatically following the recent economic downturn and as of 2013 had not dropped to pre-recession levels, according to the report. Some 17.5 million households across the country were considered food-insecure that year.

More than 1.2 million adults were living in Los Angeles County’s 530,000 food-insecure households in 2011, according to the report.

“Food insecurity is a major public health issue that has reached crisis proportions in LA County,” the report reads. “It can have significant negative impacts on health and well-being across the life span, including impairing growth and development among children, increasing risks for depression and other mental health conditions among adolescents, and contributing to malnutrition and worsened medical conditions in the elderly.”

Local agencies and community leaders are driven to address the issue.

Westside Food Bank distributes 4.5 million pounds of food annually to more than 70 local social service agencies. In 2015 the nonprofit’s food will reach approximately 105,000 people, nearly half of whom are children.

Meanwhile, Meals on Wheels West delivered more than 39,744 meals to clients over the last six months of 2014, a 32-percent increase over the same six-month period in 2013.

But the organization is trying to do even more to help those in need.

With about 400 active volunteers, including 45 on daily duty, the nonprofit has started serving low-income clients in the Oakwood area of Venice from Lincoln Boulevard to the beach between Santa Monica and Marina del Rey.

The group’s Heal Healthy at Home program distributes food to recently discharged hospital patients. The initiative, which involves partnerships with UCLA Medical Center in Santa Monica, the VA West Los Angeles Medical Center and Kaiser Permanente, curbs health care costs, Baca said.

“You don’t see disabled or elderly, frail people on the street,” he said. “They’re behind closed doors. Our job is to open those doors.

“We need the support of foundations, local and national companies and generous individuals so we can meet this growing need. Because it’s not slowing down.”

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