Students rely on food pantries to survive in wealthy Silicon Valley
Soitza Del Real (center) and Odalis Carvajal (right) are in the current cohort of Eastside Grown fellows at Veggielution, a community farm in East San Jose. The program is helping people gain the skills necessary to run a mobile food business. Photo courtesy of Adam F. Hutton.

To many of its approximately 2 million residents, Santa Clara County’s nickname “Valley of the Heart’s Delight” might seem like less of a nod to its agricultural roots and more tragically ironic.

High rents and low wages have forced about 169,300 people in the county — including 2,850 children enrolled in CalFresh — into a state of food insecurity. Despite Silicon Valley experiencing a 74 percent increase of overall per capita economic output between 2001 and 2017, according to a 2018 study from Working Partnerships USA, almost 90 percent of workers have lower wages now than two decades ago.

Despite living in one of the world’s wealthiest regions fueled by billion-dollar corporations, many residents are unsure where their next meal will come from, putting more pressure on food pantries, soup kitchens and other community groups that work to fill in the region’s patchwork safety net.

Food banks as a safety net

One of the biggest food pantries in the country, the Second Harvest Food Bank, has been feeding hungry families in Santa Clara and San Mateo counties for decades. SHFB supports CalFresh by connecting locals with donated and purchased food items through grocery programs and mobile food pantries. Second Harvest has satellite food closets set up at every community college in both counties, as well as two private colleges and San Jose State University, where the Spartan Food Pantry is a staple for many students.

Food stamps, known as CalFresh, afforded Carlina, a San Jose State student experiencing food insecurity who declined to provide her last name, the freedom to go shopping and cook meals on her own terms. She loved how she “could just go to the store any time I needed,” especially when she had a car. But after losing food stamps, the Spartan Food Pantry has been her only reliable nutrition option.

Students visited the walk-in food closet 1,807 times in September, according to SJSU — an almost 20 percent increase from 1,508 visits in May. With assistance from the SJSU Division of Student Affairs, the Student Hunger Committee in a 2014 food access survey of 4,286 students found that about half of SJSU students sometimes skip meals to save money. A more recent assessment of hunger among college students by the California High Education Basic Needs Alliance reported that 41.6 percent of CSU students and 44 percent of UC undergrads experience food insecurity, as do exactly half of California community college students.

“It’s designed to be a grocery-style shopping experience because we want people to be able to select items that they’re going to use, so that it’s maybe a little bit more culturally appropriate, things that they maybe know how to utilize,” said Ben Falter, SJSU’s senior student affairs case manager. “We also want to push their boundaries, but we recognize that sometimes when you go to those other distribution sites, you’re like, ‘Five of these things I love, two of these things I’m never going to use,’ and you’re trying to swap it with someone in the parking lot. We’d rather not use that approach.”

Though grateful for the weekly assistance, Carlina said limited food options affect her day-to-day living and her pantry trips require extensive planning.

“I have to plan not only my meals but my travel,” said Carlina, who rides her bicycle and uses public transit. “I make sure that I schedule what day of the week I’m going to the food pantry so that I know that I’ll be able to get home right away. I can’t go to class right after because I need to get things in the fridge.”

Through the partnership with Second Harvest as well as donors, Spartan Food Pantry stocks its shelves with an assortment of mostly healthy packaged foods and fresh produce, some of which comes from the student garden on campus. During one trip this summer, Carlina hauled an insulated bag home on her bike filled with fresh fruits including one apple, an orange, a small box of pastries and a frozen PF Chang’s entree.

The visit takes just minutes but Carlina finds herself back every seven days, taking inventory of her haul and prioritizing which items to eat before they spoil.

“When I do go to the food pantry here, a lot of the produce is toward the end of its life, so I try to eat that as quickly as I can,” she said. “I try to freeze what I can because I’ll make shakes sometimes. I’ll end up just eating a lot of potatoes or pasta or rice or something like that just because it lasts a long time.”

To counter the nutritional consequences of poverty — which is usually obesity — local groups like Veggielution offer Veggie Vouchers. The nonprofit runs a farm stand on a 3-acre spread at Emma Prusch Farm in East San Jose, where both Veggie Vouchers and SNAP can be redeemed year-round for organic vegetables from Veggielution’s garden.

A partnership with Pediatric Healthy Lifestyle Center of Santa Clara Valley Medical Center also helps distribute food to low-income residents. The process encourages regular visits with a doctor for information and resources, and the vouchers can be used to attend cooking classes and learn how to prepare healthy meals.

“We partnered with their clinics to basically have their physicians hand out coupons for our farmstand for people who test as food insecure. These vouchers are good for up to $10 per visit and there’s four visits per card, so they’d just go back to their doctor for more,” said Emily Schwing, Veggielution’s marketing impact manager.

“It’s not just about making sure they have access to the food,” she added. “It’s less transactional and more of a community approach, in that once they start receiving the card, it’s not just about the food but what other programming can we get them plugged into.”

Vouchers go unused

Schwing said, however, that on average 10 to 20 people per month use vouchers while “closer to the hundreds” remain unused.

Veggielution’s fairly hidden location inside the park and limited hours could explain the low rate of voucher use, but embarrassment also may play a part, she said.

According to a study published by the peer-reviewed journal Family and Community Health in 2016, “stigma and shame associated with pantry use were major concerns” among food closet patrons.

“It’s embarrassing, it feels like I did something wrong when I know ultimately I didn’t,” Carlina said. “It makes me second guess — should I have gone to school to start a new career when I was at least able to pay my bills before. It’s really hard emotionally. You second guess yourself a lot, like, what am I doing wrong?”

Carlina still finds things she’s grateful for every day and is optimistic her circumstances are temporary. Too many others will continue struggling to stay afloat, she reminds herself.

“That’s why I’m in school, right?” she said. “I want to give back, I look forward to doing that. I’m not in a position to do it right now, but I absolutely will as soon as I can. I have seen kindness through my struggles and so I just want to give that back.”

Julia Baum’s reporting on food access and food insecurity was undertaken as a USC Center for Health Journalism 2019 California Fellow.

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