Silicon Valley's local food bank is sounding the alarm this holiday season after donations from residents in the South Bay and Peninsula fell short in November and the first half of December. If the trend continues, new pantry programs could fall by the wayside and dietary staples like chicken and eggs could vanish from the shelves.
The Second Harvest Food Bank of Santa Clara and San Mateo Counties faces a two-fold problem: demand is increasing for food pantry services in both counties, and the amount of money coming in is declining. A whopping 18,000 more people sought out Second Harvest's food services last month compared to November 2015, adding up to nearly 300,000 clients served in that month alone.
The trend seems contradictory, given the glowing statistics about the local economy. Job growth continues to rise at a staggering rate, and unemployment sank last month to some of the lowest levels since 2001. Data from the state's Employment Development Department put unemployment at 2.8 percent in San Mateo and 3.5 percent in Santa Clara counties. But amid the prosperity, hundreds of thousands of families -- many of whom work service-sector jobs -- are still barely scraping by and can't afford their monthly grocery bills.
Kathy Jackson, the CEO of the local Second Harvest Food Bank, said it really speaks to the "wealth divide" in Silicon Valley that an estimated 30 percent of families rely on some degree of social services to make ends meet. It's reached the point, she said, where the number of people picking up food from Second Harvest has far-eclipsed the number of people who sought help following the 2008 economic crash.
"We got to 253,000 (people) in one month during the worst of of the Great Recession," Jackson said. "We've never seen a jump like this."
The big challenge for Second Harvest is that, at a time when funding is needed the most, charitable donations to the food bank are down this holiday season. Donations in November fell short by $1.5 million compared to last year, and the food bank was off by another $200,000 in the first two weeks of December. The light funding during the winter months has major implications for Second Harvest's year-round services.
"Food banks in particular heavily rely on that late-October and early-November time period," Jackson said. "We raise half our money is in a little over a quarter of the year."
It's hard to pinpoint exactly what happened. Jackson said it's possible that the late election date coupled with an early Thanksgiving might have had a distracting presence during the month of November, and well as the intense interest in the election that lasted well after Nov. 8.
The first thing on the chopping block is new services that Second Harvest was scheduled to launch in 2017, which includes five "school pantries," where local schools partner with the food bank to host pantry services on campus. An elementary school might designate one day out of the month, for example, to host a pop-up food pantry so families can stock up on the essentials.
Second Harvest also started a new "food pharmacy" program this year, where health clinics for low-income families provide free and healthy groceries tailored to the nutritional needs of patients dealing with chronic diseases like diabetes and hypertension. Four new food pantries were scheduled to launch next year, but are now in jeopardy because of the gap in funding.
If push comes to shove, the next place to cut would be food spending. Although much of Second Harvest's food comes from donations, the organization still buys about 25 percent of its supply -- mostly protein-rich foods like chicken, milk and eggs. A decrease in annual funding means the food bank might have to distribute a little less food overall, Jackson said, or make some trade-offs like going light on chicken and long on less-expensive legumes. Jackson said they aren't at the point of making trade-offs yet, and that she's optimistic donations will increase.
"We've still got a few more days left in the year and into January," Jackson said.
A large portion of Second Harvest's food reaches needy residents in Mountain View through the Community Services Agency (CSA) of Mountain View and Los Altos, which receives about 25 percent of its total food supplies from the food bank, according to Tom Myers, executive director of CSA. That means anytime funding falls short for Second Harvest, CSA feels the effects. Turkeys and chickens were in short supply during the holiday season this year, Myers said, and it took some scrambling to fill the need.
"It is not an overstatement to say when you are supporting Second Harvest Food Bank, you are in a way also supporting CSA and the work we do," Myers said.
While major donations and "massive, large checks" are always appreciated, Jackson said the real way to catch up on funding is through small $50 and $100 donations from regular people. Each dollar donated can provide two healthy meals, Jackson said, and can go a long way towards helping residents who are struggling to get by.
"These checks in the aggregate can make an enormous difference," she said.