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As part of our special report this week, we’ve been talking a lot about the way San Diego stacks up next to other large counties in the state.

Here’s a look at some numbers that show the spiking demand for food here in San Diego as the economy has worsened.

We know the economy continued to struggle and poverty reached a 50-year high in San Diego County. Leaders in community organizations say they’ve seen demand increase for food services and others.

  • For the first six months in 2009, the San Diego Food Bank gave out almost 650,000 more meals than it did in that period in 2008.
  • Between July 2008 and June 2009, about 437,500 county residents received food from Feeding America San Diego, according a study the organization released Tuesday. 
  • In that study, interviews with 286 people seeking help with food between February and June 2009 revealed 62 percent of households had at least one adult employed. 

Gary McDonald, president and CEO of Feeding America San Diego, echoed a sentiment that appeared in our first story: “It’s harder to be poor here than anywhere in the U.S.”

Last April, the Board of Supervisors passed a plan to combat the low participation in food stamps that we talked about in Tuesday’s story.

That plan aims to add 50,000 more children and seniors to the program by June 2012. Between May 2009 and the end of the year, the county had signed up about 15,500 more children and seniors for food stamps, according to recent county data.

The county has long been criticized for its lack of food stamps outreach so we talked to several critics to see what they thought of the shift.

They had some interesting reactions.

  • “I definitely feel that the tide has changed there in San Diego,” said Jessica Bartholow, the former director of programs for the California Association of Food Banks and now a legislative advocate at the Western Center on Law and Poverty.
  • “What began to turn this around was the decision by the board, with a huge nudge — call that a big push — from the economy. They were saying, ‘Wait a minute, maybe there was this money they were missing out on,’” said Dennis Stewart, western regional director for the federal agency overseeing food stamps, the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service.
  • “I think they’ve changed their attitudes and decided they must be more aggressive. But other counties have taken the safety net responsibility to new levels,” said Mitch Mitchell, regional vice president for San Diego Gas & Electric and chairman of the San Diego Food Bank.

Another part of the county’s plan is to network much more directly with nonprofits. Jennifer Tracy, outreach coordinator for the San Diego Hunger Coalition, trains groups to pre-screen people for food stamps, brainstorms ways to simplify the application process and listens to desperate applicants on the phone.

“We’re the key nexus — our relationship with the community organizations,” Tracy said. “It kind of helps to corral the cats.”

— KELLY BENNETT and DAGNY SALAS

Dagny Salas

Dagny Salas was web editor at Voice of San Diego from 2010 to 2013. She was an investigative fellow at VOSD from 2009 to 2010.

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