Bay Area hunger problem hits hard in San Mateo County

SAN MATEO — Felipe Ruiz Gonzalez pulled into the parking lot and unlocked his trunk, a familiar ritual of the past 16 months.

He watched in the rearview window Monday morning as masked volunteers began to load up his car with groceries.

Cartons of eggs. A loaf of bread. Fresh herbs. A box of squash and peppers. Salami. A gallon of milk. Cans of beans.

Early in the pandemic, Gonzalez, 66, lost his job at a restaurant and his wife lost hers at a department store. The couple moved out of their $1,100-per-month apartment and into an RV.

As they struggled to make ends meet, they began coming here to the Samaritan House, a nonprofit organization, to pick up groceries once a week.

Gonzalez, who moved to the United States from Peru in 2019, handed me a worn piece of paper listing the dates he has received food from the organization — Monday was his 58th visit. He hopes to pay them back someday.

“We didn’t know how we could live without jobs and money,” Gonzalez told me. “We tell other families about this place.”

The economic toll of the pandemic has left thousands of Californians without enough food on the table.

San Mateo County, home to the headquarters of Facebook and other major corporations, has experienced the largest increase in food stamp enrollment in the state since January 2020, with a 41% jump in the number of people here relying on CalFresh, the monthly food benefit program, according to agency data.

The Bay Area may be home to Silicon Valley and some of the richest people in the country, but its income inequality ranks among the worst in the nation. Of the 10 California counties with the biggest growth in food stamp enrollment over the past 18 months, seven were in the Bay Area.

“The underlying level of need was always much greater than people realized,” Bart Charlow, the chief executive of Samaritan House, told me. “Any hike in the cost of anything just pushes them over the edge. COVID pushed a hell of a lot of people over the edge.”

Living in San Mateo County is so expensive that the federal government considers a family of four making as much as $146,350 per year low income. That threshold in New York City and Los Angeles County is far lower, at approximately $95,000.

While food banks nationwide distributed roughly 50% more food in 2020 compared with 2019, the rise has been much sharper in the Bay Area.

At Samaritan House, the number of meals delivered has increased by around 80%. At Second Harvest of Silicon Valley, a food bank that serves San Mateo and neighboring Santa Clara counties, their clientele has doubled in the past 18 months.

“This is the most people we have ever served by a very long shot,” said Tracy Weatherby, Second Harvest’s vice president of strategy and marketing. “This need is not likely to go down anytime soon.”

Weatherby said she thought the pandemic had helped normalize receiving food assistance.

“There were a lot of people pre-pandemic who needed our services but may have been concerned about the stigma,” she said. “We think what has happened is a lot of the people who utilized our food during the pandemic are people who probably need our assistance on an ongoing basis.”

Earlier this month, Gonzalez began a new job as a delivery driver. But he was hired for only 28 hours a week so is looking for additional work.

Until then, he will be back at Samaritan House next week.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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