OC Hunger Alliance releases results on food security, nutrition and access

Orange County was lucky, with two food banks to serve the needy among more than 3 million residents.

The olive branch was extended when former Second Harvest Food Bank CEO Harald Herrmann arranged to meet with Mark Lowry, director of Community Action for the OC Food Bank of Orange County.

Herrmann approached the meeting in a spirit of cooperation, not competition. Lowry appreciated that.

He said there are often areas in California and elsewhere where two food banks would see themselves as competitors — at best.

“At worst, they’re at war with each other,” Lowry said. “To our credit, both food banks were polite and respectful and courteous to each other. But Harald challenged me and said, ‘That’s nice, but not good enough. This is an issue that affects all of Orange County, and we’re not sitting at that table together, agreeing on a strategy together on how to fight hunger.’”

A man picks vegetables at Orange Coast College as part of Second Harvest Food Bank’s college pantry program.

(Courtesy of Kevin Rogers / Second Harvest Food Bank)

This discussion was the cornerstone for the Orange County Hunger Coalition, which was established in 2020 during the coronavirus pandemic as a partnership between the two local food banks and Abound Food Care.

Abound Food Care, the lead agency for the OC Hunger Alliance, is a non-profit that also addresses food insecurity by examining food waste.

On June 13, nearly 200 cross-sector stakeholders gathered at Dwelling Place in Anaheim to discuss results from a new community needs assessment that examined the state of food and nutrition security in Orange County.

Claudia Bonilla Keller, who took over as CEO of Second Harvest in 2022, said many of the data points and conclusions in the survey reinforced what those in the industry already knew about the importance of choice in pantries. food

“The old way, which has really kind of peaked during the COVID-19 pandemic, of giving someone a box or a bag of food, is really not the best in terms of the dignity of people who are hungry,” said Bonilla Keller . “It’s also not optimal for reducing food waste, because if you don’t pick your food there’s a good chance you’ll end up with food that’s not suitable for you or your taste.”

Mike Learakos, Claudia Bonilla Keller and Mark Lowry of the Orange County Hunger Alliance.

Mike Learakos, Claudia Bonilla Keller and Mark Lowry are members of the original Orange County Hunger Alliance steering committee.

(Courtesy of Ann Chatillon)

As well as a choice of snacks, the survey highlighted the importance of good nutritious food, including protein-rich options.

Lowry, who has been in business for nearly 40 years, said the old saying used to be that people who suffer from food insecurity should be grateful for what they get. But the change to healthier options came when it was realized that the service provided is more long-term than short-term.

“The two largest populations we serve are seniors on fixed incomes and the working poor, people who are working full-time jobs but are not earning a living wage and enough to meet the needs of their families,” a Lowry said. . “Those people are getting food, maybe not just for a short period of time but on a consistent basis… and there are long-term consequences for people who don’t have protein in their diets, in terms of health and life outcomes.”

Participants in the survey, conducted in conjunction with the nonprofit Charitable Ventures and funded by the Orange County Health Care Agency’s Office of Population, Health and Equity, included more than 189 community organizations and 811 Orange County residents. It covered seven main themes: demographics, utilization, capacity, referral services, unmet needs, barriers to access and areas for improvement.

Mark Lowry, left, OC Food Bank director, helps pick butternut squash at Westminster High School in 2022.

Mark Lowry, left, OC Food Bank director, helps pick butternut squash at Westminster High School in 2022.

(file photo)

More than half of respondents said they have difficulties accessing benefits and services. According to the USDA Food Access Research Atlas, there were 74 low-income census tracts in Orange County in 2019, where a significant share of residents lived more than half a mile from the nearest supermarket. These areas, mostly in central or northwestern Orange County, accounted for 13% of the countywide census tracts.

The survey also showed that less than half of the providers allow food choice. Another challenge is the need for culturally appropriate food.

The executives agreed that the perception of wealth in this county is one of the primary barriers to the discussion on food insecurity.

Another issue is that food insecurity is not always readily apparent.

“There is a portion of the population that is gainfully employed, they have mortgages, they have health insurance – and they are food insecure,” said Mike Learakos, CEO of Abound Food Care. “The first thing you cut back on, the first thing you jump on, is the one thing you need every day. It’s food.”

Learakos said over a five-year period, 125 million pounds of food were found in Orange County. That’s food that used to go to landfill.

Seniors choose food from the Second Harvest Food Bank

Seniors pick up food from the Second Harvest Food Bank “Granny’s Market” in April at Villa Anaheim Senior Apartments.

(James Carbone)

The OC Hunger Alliance also has new additions to its steering committee, including 211 Orange County, CalOptima Health, Meals on Wheels, Orange County Grantmakers and the Orange County Social Services Agency.

The group plans to take the results of the survey and continue working.

“The survey helped identify the ‘what,’ what the needs are,” said Lowry. “Now we have to start talking about the ‘who.’ Now that we have identified all this material, who can follow up on these recommendations, these identified needs, and how? Much of what was discussed costs money. One of the jokes about food banking is that it costs a lot of money to give things out for free.”

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