San Francisco is a city of haves and have-nots when it comes to nutrition
Indeed, while the Federal Poverty Level for a family of three is $18,310, cost-of-living research by the INSIGHT Center for Community Economic Development found that in San Francisco, this family would need almost $40,000 more than that to make ends meet.
Rivecca says the ongoing recession is simultaneously deepening the food divides and undermining efforts to address it. For instance, SSI recipients must make do with $77 a month less than they got in 2009, while California is the only state where SSI cannot be supplemented by food stamps.
According to the Food Security Task Force, San Francisco "has an inordinately high number of residents who are elderly, low-income and/or blind and disabled — over 47,000 residents receive SSI." Many are homebound, socially isolated, and living in SRO units without kitchens, and no means of preparing their own food. So it's no surprise that these same people, who need help the most, often get it the least.
Due to "misconceptions about what qualifies," says CFPA's Kerry Birnbach, only 5 percent of Californians eligible for Social Security participate in CalFresh. "Senior citizens are more isolated, and the more isolated you are, the less likely you are to know about it." Birnbach says that leads to lower nutrition, less energy, and greater hospitalization rates. "It's not having food on the table — choosing between food and medicine."
A 2006 study by the San Francisco Department of Aging and Adult Services found that while the city's elders "received approximately 12.2 million free meals through all of the programs in the City including food pantries, free dining rooms, and home delivered meals, the gap between the number of meals served and the number of meals needed was somewhere between 6 [million] and 9 million meals annually."
BAND-AID FOOD SYSTEM
As television cameras made clear on Thanksgiving, there's no shortage of food and meal giveaway programs, soup kitchens run by churches and nonprofits — a whole constellation of ad hoc benevolence spread across the city. But this kind of "emergency food assistance" has become a structural part of the city's dietary landscape.
Another main ingredient in the city's food infrastructure is seemingly cheap fast food, which for many poor people becomes the diet of first and last resort. Sup. Eric Mar recalls meeting with teenage mothers and hearing one parent speak about dumpster diving at McDonald's for what she called "fancy dinner."
"The cheapest possible food like McDonald's is seen as a luxury," says Mar, who last year passed legislation preventing fast food chains from selling kids meals with toys unless they improved their nutrition content. "Poor people rely on whatever's out there, and when McDonald's or Burger King sells cheap, it undercuts families' efforts to get healthy."
District 10 Sup. Malia Cohen sees the impacts of fast food and junk food every day in Bayview. "There is no infrastructure out there to de-program people" from long-standing fast food habits. "I don't fault people for eating fast food, but I do want them to think twice and know they have a choice."
So what is the choice, and how will the city address its deep food divides, which cut across geographic and demographic lines?
So far, it's a patchwork project. As one step, the supervisors in April passed a new zoning ordinance designed to encourage more urban food production. In Bayview, Cohen says, "We're looking at urban agriculture as something that's viable" to feed low-income residents.