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Mark James Miller: Hunger worsening in the pandemic
Looking Forward

Mark James Miller: Hunger worsening in the pandemic

Food insecurity — hunger by any other name — existed in America and on the Central Coast before the pandemic struck. But the coronavirus has made the problem more acute. Jason Sisk-Provencio, paster of the United Church of Christ in San Luis Obispo, reports that he has seen a one-third upsurge in the number of people his church provides meals for, and Marlene Jeung, co-president of the Five Cities Christian Women Food Bank, has seen a similar increase.

“These are the working poor,” says Marlene. “People that have never been here before.”

Stephanie Robb, of Allan Hancock College’s “Food Share Because We Care” program, states, “We see many families with children, working and unemployed, living in their car.”

Prior to the pandemic, 35 million Americans were struggling with hunger. That number has increased to 54 million, including 18 million children. While Americans believe in “boundlessness,” as Gertrude Stein observed, many are seeing that abundance pass them by.

The coronavirus hit at a time when approximately 40% of Americans were only a paycheck or two away from poverty. The pandemic has exposed deep pockets of inequity, with hunger lurking in the shadows.

The Central Coast is not exempt. Food Share of Ventura reports “seeing a huge increase in the number of low-income families” seeking assistance with food. “Most were low-income working families, living paycheck to paycheck.” Other agencies I contacted said the same: With the advent of the pandemic, more and more people are coming to them for help.

The bright spot in this otherwise dark picture is that people who need food assistance on the Central Coast have many places to turn for help. “Our family is very grateful,” says a resident whose children have gotten lunch bags from their school. Another says she has utilized Hancock College’s food bank. “It has been a great help for me and my family.”

The pandemic has hit those who were already on the edge financially especially hard. People who have lost their jobs or had their income reduced often face the choice of choosing between food and other necessities. “Our bills never stopped so we needed to pay the important bills while leaving the least necessary,” said one. “Food banks were our best shot” for a household in which three of four adults lost their jobs.

Hunger is the offspring of poverty, and it has an endless number of effects on those who suffer from it. Besides being forced to choose between paying for food or paying for medicine, hungry people sometimes must resort to other means such as watering down food and drinks to make them last longer, or buying cheaper, unhealthy food, which in turn leads to high blood pressure, diabetes, and heart disease.

Hunger is especially hard on children, impacting their mental and physical health, and their achievement in school. Hunger can also cause behavior problems such as hyperactivity, anxiety and aggressive behavior.

“My mother goes to the pantry once a month to get free food,” one person told me. Another said, “The food bank was a life saver for me and my family.”

From Cambria to Ventura, Central Coast Foodbanks are working to alleviate the problem of hunger in our communities, and generous people are coming forward to help. Marlene Jeung’s foodbank had 70 volunteers before the pandemic; now she has 100 and more are needed to keep up with the demand.

It is heartening to know that in difficult times like this there are people who care and places those in need can go for help in obtaining the basic need of food for themselves and their families.

Mark James Miller is an Associate English Instructor at Allan Hancock College and President of the Part-Time Faculty Association. He can be reached at


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