The headlines say unemployment is down and other “leading economic indicators” are positive. But while things have improved for some, a recent study by the Urban Institute shows that many people on the lowest rungs of the economic ladder continue to struggle.
In fact, 40 percent of Americans cannot meet at least one basic need, such as food, healthcare, housing or utilities. In California, which has some of the highest living costs in the country, this scenario plays out for families of all sizes when they are forced to do things like skip meals to pay their bills. At St. Joseph Center’s food pantry, the ultimate goal is to empower those in need and drive out hunger.
In Los Angeles County, high rent is a major factor driving families to seek supplemental food resources. Families in all income brackets Countywide spend an average of 47 percent of their income on housing expenses. That is one of the highest rates in the country, and it is up sharply from an average of 36 percent in the ’80s and ’90s. For low-income families, the cost of a median-priced apartment can actually exceed their monthly income. This leads people who are struggling to find other means of making ends meet, such as sharing apartments between multiple families or keeping extended families together under one roof.
Eking out every dollar to afford rent also leads people to seek out additional kinds of assistance, such as St. Joseph Center’s food pantry located on the Santa Monica/Venice border. We operate the largest food pantry west of the 405. Each week more than 400 families come for help, and in the course of year, approximately 2,500 men, women and children will benefit from the food we provide. Those are record high levels that spiked during the Great Recession and never really came down.
Our pantry uses a “client choice” model that embodies St. Joseph Center’s approach to providing services. People get to select the items they want from a range of choices on the shelves, just as you or I do at the grocery store. They take home only the items they know their families will eat, which enhances their sense of self-determination and reduces waste. People can visit our pantry up to once per week, and bigger families get to have more food. We estimate that a typical trip through our Pantry is worth at least $50, which means over the course of a month families are saving at least $200. For some, this is the difference between making rent and falling behind with their landlord.
St. Joseph Center’s food pantry is also a vital link to additional resources for families in need—as part of philosophy of empowerment, we offer classes throughout the year that help equip people with the tools to become more self-sufficient. Our goal for all the people we serve at the food pantry and in all of our programs is to empower them to reach the point where they simply don’t need us any longer.
We know that our food pantry is an important resource for many families – that is why we have kept it going for more than 40 years. But the way to actually solve hunger for most low-income families in Los Angeles is to reduce the other pressures that prevent them from having enough money to put food on the table – especially the high cost of rent. A couple of years ago, UCLA researchers asked families making less than $30,000 if they had worried in the last few years about themselves or family members going hungry, and 49 percent said yes. When the same people were asked if they had worried about losing their homes and becoming homeless, 54 percent said yes. Hunger and housing stability are inextricably linked, especially in LA County.
We must continue to address hunger by providing direct food assistance to those in need. We must also recognize that hunger is most often a symptom of structural economic challenges. It is important that we also work to address the systemic issues that drive hunger in our community—most importantly, high housing costs.
You can help on both fronts! You can perform drives to bring much-needed items to your own local pantry, including staple food items that pantries always need and specialty items that help families get by, including diapers and baby wipes. Such efforts are always needed and always very much appreciated. You can also help with the larger problem by showing up at community meetings to say that you support housing solutions. Working together on multiple fronts, we can significantly reduce hunger and hosing insecurity in our community.
Va Lecia Adams Kellum, Ph.D. is President & CEO of St. Joseph Center.