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Hunger in Humboldt 

Food insecurity remains rampant as pandemic assistance dries up

click to enlarge Food for People Emergency Food Response Coordinator Robert Sataua at a drive-thru distribution at the Bayshore Mall.


Food for People Emergency Food Response Coordinator Robert Sataua at a drive-thru distribution at the Bayshore Mall.

When Woodsie Hunsucker wants to buy groceries, the 25-year-old gets in his truck and drives over 46 miles — 6 of them on a dirt road — from his home along the Klamath River on the Yurok Reservation to the Walmart in Crescent City. The drive alone takes him about three hours; with shopping, the entire experience can easily eat up six or seven hours of his day.

Food isn't just hard to get to; it's also difficult to afford. Hunsucker usually gets paid every two weeks, and he tries to stock up on enough groceries — mostly canned goods and other nonperishables — until his next paycheck. He says that his income is just above the amount needed to qualify for CalFresh, the state's food stamp program, so he occasionally supplements his diet with meat and fish that he hunts and food that he grows.

"It's been like this my whole life. This is nothing new to me," Hunsucker says.

The North Coast may be known for its rugged beauty and proximity to vast redwood forests, but for those like Hunsucker who live here, it can also be a challenging place to get enough to eat. A combination of geography, poverty, rurality, a lack of grocery stores and high housing costs contributes to food insecurity in Humboldt County. More recently, climate change, the pandemic, inflation and the sharp decline in the cannabis industry have exacerbated the problem.

According to the latest data from Feeding America, 14 percent of the population in Humboldt County is considered food insecure, which is defined as lacking "consistent access to enough food for every person in a household to live an active, healthy life." By comparison, the nationwide average is 10 percent. Humboldt County has the third-highest food insecurity rate in the state.

"The need is huge," says Robert Sataua, the emergency food response coordinator at Food for People, the county's food bank. "We're seeing the highest number we've seen in all our programs. ... With the gas prices being so expensive, folks can't afford the food."

To make matters worse, an emergency allotment tied to COVID-19 that allowed food stamp recipients across the country to receive the maximum benefit went away at the end of March ("'Benefit Cliff,'" April 7, 2022). That means that individuals who were receiving up to $281 per month in food stamp benefits now could be receiving as little as $23 per month.

A weak local economy coupled with high housing costs means that living on the North Coast isn't sustainable for many people. "In general, the story of our county right now is, the cost of living doesn't match what our incomes are," says Heidi McHugh, the CalFresh outreach and policy advocacy coordinator for Food for People. The Economic Policy Institute's Family Budget Calculator estimates that for a family of three (two adults and one child) to be considered self-sufficient in Humboldt County, they would need to make about $74,000 per year. But the median household income hovers around $54,000 per year.

The implications of hunger are widespread and ripple across the community. "It affects every aspect of their life," says McHugh, citing stress levels, feelings of hopelessness, children's ability to learn, behavioral problems and health. "More people are showing up to hospitals for diet-related emergencies. Every part of a community gets impacted when people are hungry."

The food bank serves 16,000 people — about 12 percent of Humboldt's population — through a variety of programs, including distribution sites around the county, a Choice Pantry in Eureka that's akin to a grocery store, produce markets and a mobile produce pantry that offers fresh fruits and vegetables. It also has programs for seniors and kids and offers emergency food assistance.

Still, it's not enough.

"Food banks are designed to be emergency distributions for food, but we have people who come to us every single month," says McHugh. "And they already have CalFresh [food stamps] and they're still hungry. ... For many people, we are the food they receive, and that's rough because we're not designed to be."

Humboldt's geography also creates challenges for food access. The county is spread out over 4,000 square miles, and there are not that many grocery stores. With only a couple of highways in and out of the area, road closures due to wildfires, landslides, earthquakes or bad weather prevent trucks from delivering food to the area and people from accessing grocery stores.

"There are several points in the year when we're cut off," says Sataua. "It's like an island here."

Humboldt County has been hit particularly hard by natural disasters in the past year, with the Dec. 20 6.4-magnitude earthquake struck near Ferndale and the 5.4 earthquake also shook the area on New Year's Day. That was followed by brutal winter storms. Some residents didn't have power for two weeks.

When I spoke with him in early March, Hunsucker said he'd been trapped at his trailer for two weeks by the recent snowstorms. And the generator powering his refrigerator had broken, so his food had spoiled and he was living off canned goods.

The lack of cold storage facilities in the area has been another contributor to food insecurity in Humboldt, according to Anne Holcomb, Food for People's executive director. In February of 2020, just as the pandemic was hitting the country, a city sewer malfunctioned and exploded into the food bank, causing irreparable damage. The building had to be torn down, forcing the food bank to relocate its staff and programs to four separate sites. The good news is that a new, larger facility with triple the refrigeration capacity of the previous location opened last month.

While local advocates are exploring several avenues to help the situation, such as supporting local food producers, improving coordinated responses to disasters and advocating for increased food stamp benefits at the state and federal levels, all acknowledge that solutions are far off. What may be needed is a more transformative approach.

On the Yurok Reservation, which was labeled a food desert by the United States Department of Agriculture, the tribe is shifting its focus from food security to food sovereignty. "In reality, we have plenty of food on our reservation — it just has to be gathered and processed," says Annelia Hillman, the food village coordinator for the Yurok Tribe. "Food sovereignty for Indigenous people is reclaiming our traditional foods and traditional diets and being able to access our foods. ... It's defining our own food system."

Hillman says timber companies displaced the tribe from its traditional hunting grounds, and fire-suppression policies prohibited its people from traditional burning practices that allowed them to gather acorns, a staple of their traditional diet. Declining deer, elk and salmon populations also affected their food supply.

Thanks to several grants, including one from the USDA, the tribe is now working on everything from land restoration to educating the community on traditional practices like canning fish. Three "food villages" will use regenerative practices to grow fresh produce for the community.

"There is a gaining interest in eating traditional foods again," says Hillman. "People are excited about it. We've got social media and TikTok and it's catching on. ... It's hopeful. It's exciting."

Hunsucker says he hadn't heard of the food villages on his reservation but has occasionally gotten help from the food bank's mobile produce pantries. When I asked whether he'd consider moving to an area with better access to food, he was adamant.

"Even with all the hardships I've had to face, I can't see myself living anywhere else," he says. "It is nice here."

This article was first published by Alta Journal.

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