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As inflation rises, so does hunger in California’s Inland Empire

Topics in Health: Lessons From The Field

As inflation rises, so does hunger in California’s Inland Empire

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A line of more than 30 cars await a food distribution event to begin at Copper Mountain College in Joshua Tree on Aug. 2, 2022.
A line of more than 30 cars await a food distribution event to begin at Copper Mountain College in Joshua Tree on Aug. 2, 2022. For many in the line, record inflation and limited access to fresh produce has forced them to seek help.
(Photo by Javier Rojas/Inland Valley Daily Bulletin/ SCNG)

The long line of cars waiting for food on that sizzling Saturday morning in Bloomington, California is a memory that I will never forget. 

One by one, I asked people what brought them to the food distribution that day. 

“My mom is out of food stamps early this month.”

“We don’t have enough money for groceries anymore.”

“I’m unemployed.”

My reporting that day was a snapshot of how record inflation had affected households throughout the Inland Empire, a vast region of Southern California stretching east of LA.

In Riverside and San Bernardino counties this past July, the inflation rate reached 9.2%, second highest in the nation. Prices at grocery stores soared as well, with the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reporting the cost of food in the region increased 11.4% in a 12-month period.

In 2019, the latest year for which data is available, San Bernardino County reported that 13.4% of residents in the Inland Empire were considered food insecure.

Previously, the Inland region’s food insecurity rate had been trending downward. After a high of 14.3% in 2015, the rate dropped to 9.9% the following year and hovered there until it spiked again in 2019, according to San Bernardino County.

While figures for 2020 and 2021 are not yet available, food insecurity has shown no signs of slowing down in the region, with applications for the state’s food-assistance program increasing each year since the pandemic began.

As a reporter and 2022 California Fellow, my goal was to capture how inflation had an effect on food access for vulnerable residents in these communities, backed by data that made the crisis impossible to dismiss. I’m sharing here the strategies and takeaways from this reporting in hopes they might prove useful for others pursuing similar stories in their own communities.

Between January and June 2022, San Bernardino County received 104,978 applications for CalFresh (the state’s food stamp program), making it likely the county will top the 195,716 applications it processed in 2021. Riverside County received 192,881 applications in the fiscal year that ended in June, eclipsing the previous year’s total of 149,504.

While all those numbers told one story, it was my reporting on the ground over the past six months that truly shaped my three-part series on food insecurity in the region. 

Food access and food deserts were issues I had familiarity with as I reported on how the pandemic affected households in Pomona. I met activists and grassroots groups that were providing safety-net solutions to those in need. But I realized there was a larger story to be told when I began seeing long lines of cars return to food distribution sites in early 2022. People were queueing up in cities like Riverside, Victorville and Bloomington, all working class communities that saw growth in population during the pandemic. 

In 2019, the latest year data is available, more than 13% of San Bernardino and Riverside County residents were already considered food insecure. 

Many of these people were simply being outpriced at the grocery store as inflation spiked in early spring. As the costs to produce, cultivate and deliver food spiked, those charges trickled down to consumers.

So, who in the Inland Empire was being affected and what was being done to help?

In a region spanning over 27,000 square miles with nearly 5 million residents, these were answers that weren’t going to be easy to find. 

To start, I reached out to Feeding America IE one of the largest food banks serving both Riverside and San Bernardino Counties to see where I should look first. 

I joined volunteers on a delivery trip where I distributed a survey for clients asking about food access in their household. While survey responses were mixed, I realized that getting people to talk about food insecurity was going to take time and most importantly, trust. 

This is where the engagement aspect of my project began taking shape. 

I created an online survey that would be shared throughout our newsgroup and online. The survey asked questions about hunger, healthy food options near them and if individuals were having concerns about not having enough money for groceries. 

Within days, my inbox was filled with stories of desperation, anxiety and fear from people who had begun to struggle to make ends meet due to rising costs of food. 

I reached out to various county departments to see if there was any data available that could point me in the right direction. Specifically, I requested information on CalFresh, the state’s version of the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, to see where the services were most needed. 

The returned data pointed me to the communities of Bloomington and Hemet, some of the highest poverty areas in Riverside and San Bernardino counties. According to the CalFresh data, these two places saw some of the highest program enrollment.

So, I visited two food distributions in each of these respective communities, spending hours talking to those waiting in line for food, asking questions about their socioeconomic status and most importantly, what brought them there that day. 

As reporters, I feel that when you finally put a face to the subject matter you are seeking, everything else comes easy. That’s been the case for me here. 

I repeated this reporting again when I visited Joshua Tree, located in the high desert region of San Bernardino. The area represents the largest concentration of high poverty and low access to food in San Bernardino County, an area where 50% or more of the population earns less than 185% of the federal poverty level, or no more than $51,338 for a family of four.

Once again, the long lines of cars and families in need of help were all present. But this time, I knew what to ask and what to look for. 

I felt like my reporting was finally starting to click and the data I had matched with what I was seeing on the ground. 

By August, I had over 15 pages of interview transcripts full of personal stories, expert analysis and grievances from households spanning the entire Inland region. 

While I didn’t have any new solutions, the reporting speaks to the systemic issues at play when it comes to food insecurity. Poverty and lack of economic opportunities will always play a role in bringing people out of this situation. 

I acknowledge that in my reporting, but also note that policymakers have an opportunity to change that. 

During the White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition and Health in late September, only the second such conference since 1969, President Joe Biden unveiled a national strategy for ending hunger and increasing healthy eating and physical activity by 2030.

Proposed policy changes include expansion of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, broadening free meals in schools, and extending summer meal benefits to more children. All of those changes would still require congressional approval.

One of the biggest takeaways from my reporting is that things will change in a project spanning over six months. Deadlines move, focus on certain themes will change and sources will sometimes not pan out. That’s part of the process. 

I leave this project with hope that the thousands of people facing food insecurity or living in a food desert will get the resources they need.

But it will take larger actions than simply food programs and distributions to make that happen.

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