I grew up in a poor family, in a poor community, to a father with a sixth-grade education. Although it didn’t seem like it from the outside, I was raised in an environment that primed me for success. Two things gave me the opportunity to become the best version of myself: My parents valued my education above all else, and my mother’s creative cooking made sure I never felt hungry. With enough food to fuel my love of learning, I had the opportunity to overcome the many hurdles of poverty and enjoy a fulfilling career as an educator and public servant.
But one in five children in San Diego County doesn’t have the opportunity I did. If we don’t do anything about it, one in five children in our county won’t be able to grow into the adults they are meant to be and give back to their community in the way they wish they could. That’s because one in five children is held back by hunger.
Hunger takes away the ability to meet life’s challenges with the motivation and drive required to conquer them. In children, it impedes their ability to concentrate and learn. It stops children from envisioning a better future by imprisoning their thoughts between the present moment and their next meal.
Adequate nutrition gives us the ability to be strengthened, rather than held down, by struggle and hardship. Hunger is robbing 20 percent of our children of their ability to fulfill their potential, and that is robbing all of us of a better San Diego.
Who knows how many local businesses will not be built and how many innovations will not be made because of hunger? Just a single child, armed with enthusiasm and enough food, can lift up an entire community.
CalFresh, a federally funded monthly support to a household’s food budget, gives the American dream back to our children and their families. The daily CalFresh benefit — $4.38 for one person — does not seem like much, but it is our most effective path from hunger to opportunity. In fact, the average household only needs two years of food assistance before they can climb out of food insecurity and into self-sufficiency.
The state of California and the federal government offers these funds to San Diego County, which are spent on produce grown in state and at local businesses in our local economy, but according to the Alliance to Transform CalFresh, only approximately 67 percent of eligible San Diegans receive the benefits allotted for them.
Why so few?
A number of reasons including the dauntingly complicated enrollment process, the shame and stigma associated with government assistance and lack of public awareness that the benefits are even available to them. But there is plenty of hope.
In 2005, only approximately 26 percent of eligible San Diegans were enrolled in CalFresh. So the San Diego Hunger Coalition launched the CalFresh Task Force, a team of more than 60 organizations that serve people who may struggle with hunger, including food banks, food pantries, community health clinics, schools, social service agencies, refugee networks, neighborhood development groups, churches and the Health and Human Services Agency of San Diego County.
By sharing information, combining efforts, organizing better and collaborating they reached thousands more hungry San Diegans across the county with the food to fuel the ability to seize opportunity.
While that increase was an important historic accomplishment, the work is far from over. In this moment, an estimated 476,000 San Diegans are still held back by hunger.
We need more funding and further collaborative efforts to reach more children in San Diego. No child should have the scope of their life tragically narrowed for the lack of $4.38 a day for food.
Together, our efforts can make a real, measurable difference. Tell your local representative how urgent and important it is that we end hunger in San Diego. Get involved in your community’s hunger programs. Take the opportunity to dispel the myths and end the stigma of food stamps in conversations with your friends and family.
If you think you or someone you know may be eligible for CalFresh, here is a wealth of resources to help you apply.
Shirley Weber is a member of the state Assembly, serving the 79th District. Weber’s commentary has been edited for style and clarity. See anything in there we should fact check? Tell us what to check out here.