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Shedding light on hunger: Food insecurity forum focuses on the needs of Nevada County

Linda Turner fills bags with produce for Nevada County families at Interfaith Food Ministry in Grass Valley Wednesday morning.
Laura Mahaffy/lmahaffy@theunion.com |

When tough times force individuals to make cuts to housing, medical needs, or nutritional food, they are left vulnerable to the effects of food insecurity, a problem facing roughly 14 percent of the population in Nevada County.

By definition, food insecurity is the state of being without reliable access to a sufficient quantity of affordable, nutritious food.

This growing epidemic can affect, but is not limited to, senior citizens living on a fixed income that doesn’t cover food expenses through the end of the month, young families who pay their bills with insufficient funds left over to purchase nutritious food for their children, individuals who paid their children’s college tuition then lost their business and/or employment in the recession, or single-parent households.

Acknowledging and addressing the problem is the first step in trying to fix the problem. On Tuesday, area advocates began that conversation during a food insecurity community forum held at the Nevada Theater, and broadcast live by KVMR Community Radio.

Megan Timpany, the executive director of United Way in Nevada County; Malyka Bishop, co-executive director of Sierra Harvest; Lynne Lacroix, from the Nevada County Department of Public Health; Sue Van Son, the executive director of Interfaith Food Ministries; and Sandy “Jake” Jacobson from Gold Country Community Service made up the panel of local experts on the matter.

“If you’re food insecure, it actually impacts your health both short term and long term, depending on how long you’re food insecure, and that could have long-term health repercussions,” Lacroix said during the forum.

“We know that folks that are suffering from some form of food insecurity are getting higher rates of chronic disease, which is completely preventable,” said Lacroix, who works on the county’s nutrition education and obesity prevention program.

Bishop spoke of Sierra Harvest’s mission to reconnect people with sources of good healthy food.

“What has resulted is that we have these epidemic levels of childhood obesity from food-related illnesses. There are lots of cheap calories available to people,” Bishop said. “People are not dying of hunger in the same way where they’re getting thin and perishing. In this country, people are becoming obese and dying of diabetes and heart disease, and cancers. Cancer is the leading cause of death in Nevada County and so much has to do with our food and the lack of adequate access to very good nutritious food.

“That’s what Sierra Harvest programs are working to address,” she continued. “Let’s ensure that everybody has the economic ability to be able to feed themselves and let’s make sure that the food is good food and that will nourish their bodies and souls. We see when people don’t have access to good nutritious food, they can’t think, they don’t do well in school, it affects their grades and their participation.”

Bishop went on to describe her experiences addressing this issue in other low-income communities, saying she was surprised to learn that 14,000 people suffer from food insecurity upon her return to Nevada County.

“In a community that is so rich culturally, and so well-informed, and so culturally diverse, I see no reason why that should be happening,” she said.

Timpany discussed a report put out by her organization, “Struggling to Get By,” which identified the real cost of living by identifying the expense of healthcare, transportation, child care, food costs and housing costs.

“What they determined is that 4,561 households in our community are living below their costs, they can’t afford to rent, they can’t afford their food, they can’t afford their health care,” Timpany said.

She said United Way over the past three years has given $55,000 to senior food programs, and $60,000 for the Project Hope program, which provides meals to students over the summer who would normally receive a free lunch during the school year. According to Timpany, 56 percent of those who come to get food from Interfaith Food Ministries are working people.

“Poverty looks just like me and you,” said Van Son. “It’s the people who are working, it’s people who have lost their jobs, it’s people who have a medical crisis and all of a sudden there is no money for food. They’re trying to make ends meet and it’s just not working.”

Van Son added that 30 percent of those in the community who are suffering from access to food are children, and 25 percent are seniors. In 2015, her organization gave away over 96,000 bags of groceries.

“Our vision is that no one in Nevada County would know the hurt of hunger,” she said.

Jacobson of the Gold Country Community Service, whose organization has been helping feed seniors in the community for 40 years, said that they have served 40,000 hot home-delivered meals each year. This year, the demand for their service has grown by 13 percent.

“It’s a number that keeps growing astronomically and is a huge challenge for us to bear,” she said.

Jacobson added that a pet food pantry has been added in order to keep seniors from feeding their meals to their pets.

“In some cases, the person values their pet more than any family member that has ever lived in their household, and when we bring an item to them that might represent one-third of their daily requirement and they cut it in half and feed their dog, we have a problem,” Van Son said, adding that the Grass Valley Lions Club is now raising funds for pet food.

“It is a very critical service, it doesn’t seem like much, but it is huge,” she said.

Solutions in addressing food insecurity issues were discussed during the forum and included reducing the stigma that goes along with being needy and receiving services. Dialing 211 gives access to a 24-hour hotline for the community.

“People have a lot of pride and they don’t want to be stigmatized about receiving services. People have shame around that for asking for help. Nowadays you get on the electronic benefits, it’s actually a credit card, you lose the physical nature of being visually stigmatized,” Lacroix said. “There are benefits available for everybody.”

To contact Staff Writer Elias Funez, email efunez@theunion.com or call 530-477-4230.

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