East San Jose free food market targets hunger crisis
East San Jose residents pick up free produce and other food from a market at Mexican Heritage Plaza on July 12, 2023. Photo by Lorraine Gabbert.

    Free food distribution is still essential for East San Jose residents.

    That’s evident by the line of people wrapped around the block of Mexican Heritage Plaza twice a month waiting to fill their wagons with produce and other food products. Even post-pandemic there’s been a noticeable uptick in the number of residents needing food, and organizers said they’ve served 16,853 people in the last year, up from the previous count of 11,223.

    Every other Wednesday from 12-2 p.m., residents can pick up food donated by Second Harvest of Silicon Valley in a farmers market-style setting organized by the School of Arts and Culture at the plaza. At this week’s market, residents received food such as carrots, yams and chicken. 

    Manuela Ramirez came to pick up food with her children. She lives close by and, being familiar with the plaza, feels comfortable picking up food there.

    “It’s a lot of help,” she told San José Spotlight, “because right now jobs are scarce.”

    Emiko Pereyra, events manager for the School of Arts and Culture, speaks with Manuela Ramirez (second from right). Ramirez said the food helps her family get by. Photo by Lorraine Gabbert.

    School of Arts and Culture Events Manager Emiko Pereyra said 200 to 300 people show up each market day. The next day, families taking classes at the plaza and San Antonio Elementary School can pick up leftovers, which serves an additional 100 to 200 people. Homeless people can also pick up food.

    “We’re giving them good produce, good proteins, good things that in the store would be $5 or $6 per item,” Pereyra told San José Spotlight. “With a family of over five, which most of our community are, they can’t afford it.”

    San Jose is suffering from a lack of affordable housing and a high cost of living. According to an annual report by the Joint Venture Silicon Valley Institute for Regional Studies, wealth inequality in the region is more pronounced than in the U.S. overall, or globally, with the top 1% of households holding 48 times more of the total wealth than the bottom 50%.

    “It is a tragedy and an embarrassment that families are going without food in the wealthiest region globally,” Jessica Paz Cedillos, co-executive director of the School of Arts and Culture, told San José Spotlight.

    Tracy Weatherby, vice president of strategy and advocacy at Second Harvest of Silicon Valley, said half of what the food bank provides to Santa Clara and San Mateo counties goes to San Jose, especially the east side, which is predominantly Latino and Asian. During the pandemic, Second Harvest doubled the number of people it served from about 250,000 a month to more than 500,000. In the first half of last year, that decreased to 400,000 a month, but has since returned above 500,000 again.

    “Wages haven’t increased with inflation,” she told San José Spotlight.  People are having a real tough time staying housed and paying for child care so they can keep working. Part of what our services do is help people afford those other things.”

    Weatherby said a decrease in federal government benefits exacerbated the situation. During the pandemic, CalFresh emergency allotments provided the maximum household size, she said, which was a huge benefit to families who normally receive much smaller allotments. 

    From March 2020 to March 2023, 93,000 households in Santa Clara and San Mateo counties received on average an extra $171 per month for groceries through CalFresh, she said. When this ended, $16 million in food benefits left the community. 

    “From a federal perspective, they don’t see people having the level of need that we know they have to live in our high-cost area,” she said.

    But times are tough for Second Harvest as well. While the food bank’s costs have increased 30%, donations to the nonprofit have plunged, according to Weatherby. The food bank has had to adjust its food purchase budget and rotate milk and eggs with meat, rather than providing all three during every distribution. 

    The market at Mexican Heritage Plaza is made possible by volunteers such as Lisa Inzunza, who has helped out for more than a year. She said it makes an enormous difference in the community.

    “No family should go to bed hungry,” she told San José Spotlight. “We assist putting food on the table. Otherwise, they may not have it.”

    Contact Lorraine Gabbert at [email protected].

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