There has been a lot of attention paid lately to all that's wrong in our isolated little community — the high crime rate, the struggling economy and more. But amid all that's wrong, we also do some things right, and feeding people seems to be one of them.
I recently took a tour of the Eureka Rescue Mission and Executive Director Bryan Hall showed me the kitchen (and described plans for a new one). Hall showed me canned goods, the walk-in freezer full of donated Thanksgiving turkeys and tubs of bread. He explained that community members often show up to donate extra pantry items or the proceeds of a cleaned-out freezer, and that Esmeralda's Mexican Restaurant in Henderson Center prepares and donates a full, freshly prepared meal each week to feed the men, women and children in the Mission's shelters.
So many people donate that the Mission does pick-up runs every day of the week, collecting food from grocers and from schools offering leftover lunches. Local churches also hold food drives to help.
When I asked how many meals his organization provides, Hall's response was a thoughtful, "Oh my," before estimating that the Mission served more than 5,000 meals in November. Anyone in need is welcome to enjoy breakfast or dinner at the Mission. They don't have to be guests.
And we have more than the Mission. A few blocks away, St. Vincent de Paul's dining facility feeds lunch to between 100 and 400 people a day. Some of them are homeless, but others are simply folks with limited resources. People who are hungry.
According to California Food Policy Advocates, approximately 22 percent of Humboldt County residents — more than 28,000 people — live in poverty and 40 percent of those low-income households are food insecure, meaning they are not always confident they can adequately feed themselves or their families. It seems we're doing better at helping stamp out hunger in our communities than our neighbors to the north and east. In Del Norte and Trinity counties, 50 percent of low-income households are food insecure. In Sonoma County, which has a much lower poverty rate (12 percent) than we do, more resources and a closer proximity to major services, 39 percent of low-income households are food insecure.
That tells me we're doing comparatively well, and it might be because our service providers work together to feed the significant number of local folks in need. When the Mission gets more donated food than it can use (especially sliced bread), it takes the extra to Betty Chinn's Day Center, where volunteers make sandwiches. And, Hall says, Chinn brings the Mission her extra pastries. Anne Holcomb, director of Food for People, says this part of our local food collaborative, while less formal than she would like, is much better than it used to be when agencies didn't communicate well and sometimes found themselves competing for extra food.
Food for People is the largest food distribution system in the area, collecting and delivering goods to 17 food pantries throughout Humboldt County. I've volunteered at the food pantry in McKinleyville and watched seniors, moms with young children, homeless folks and those with mental illness and other challenges come in. I also remember a HSU student who came from the Midwest expecting a job that fell through. She found herself here with very limited resources, and food from the pantry helped her get back on her feet.
The thing that struck me most was how thankful everyone was. I had never seen people so consistently grateful for bread and canned goods. When the pantry had fresh milk or eggs, parents were thrilled.
Food For People also supplies other nonprofits, like Humboldt Domestic Violence Services, Drug and Alcohol Care Services, the Boys and Girls Club and other organizations serving folks in need. All told, the organization feeds approximately 12,000 people every month, an astounding number that includes working families, those on disability and others struggling to make ends meet as food costs rise.
Food for People also feeds many of the more than 6,000 local children living in poverty by sponsoring summer lunch and afterschool snack programs. It also supplies food for Backpacks for Kids — a program that sends packs full of food home with children on Fridays to ensure they eat over the weekend. Local service clubs fill and distribute the packs and make sure the program keeps going, which is good because the number of kids served has tripled since it began in 2006. Currently, it helps almost 500 kids every weekend.
There are also more than just local resources to help fill the gaps. Too many people struggling to stretch their family budget don't take advantage of CalFresh, (formerly Food Stamps). In 2013, Humboldt County had 30,186 income-eligible individuals but only 20,899 local residents signed up. This means that many are missing an opportunity to add to their family's budget and increase access to nutritious food. When I was a young single mother of three and a student at Humboldt State University, I used food stamps. At that time, enrolling was a long and painful process that included regular trips to the welfare office on Koster Street with my children in tow. To use my benefits, I had to tear off vouchers in line at the grocery store while people stood impatiently behind me watching. I hated the entire process and left the program even though it helped me buy more food for my family. Many don't know that the application process has improved since then. Folks can apply online and benefits come on debit cards instead of little booklets. This is a huge, positive change and people need to know.
The holidays, and the emphasis on community giving that come with them, are all but over. But it is important to remember that — at some point — many folks find themselves in a different place than they'd predicted. A place where they need help. If you find yourself in need, please consider reaching out to one or more of the many local programs and organizations that want to help. And if you are lucky enough to have more than you need, please consider sharing. We feed people here. Let's keep doing it right.
When not writing for the Journal, Lynette Mullen operates Projects Delivered as an independent project manager. A Humboldt native, she also has Lynette's NorCal History Blog (www.lynette707.wordpress.com).