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The Golden State's Real Warriors

By Jim Caton

Like looking at an optical illusion, we can train our eyes to see a coherent figure within a contradictory reality, to accept as natural and normal that hunger and food banks exist side by side with the gems of affluence. But Michael Altfest, of Oakland's Alameda County Community Food Bank, knows better.

Alameda County. Home to UC Berkeley, the Oakland Zoo, the NBA champion Golden State Warriors and their beautiful arena. Home to art museums, naval museums, symphony orchestras, verdant parks, magnificent architecture. Next door neighbor to wealth's contemporary metaphor, Silicon Valley. And home to 1.5 million people, one in five of whom turns to a food bank to stave off hunger. Like looking at an optical illusion, we can train our eyes to see a coherent figure within this contradictory reality. We can accept as natural and normal that hunger and food banks exist side by side with the gems of affluence. We are even accustomed to hearing those who work for charities speak as if they accept the inevitability of islands of hunger and poverty dotting a sea of plenty. But not Altfest. "Access to healthy food is a basic human right," asserts Altfest, communications manager of the Alameda County Community Food Bank. He recites the ratio of Alameda residents to ACCFB users, notes that children and the elderly account for two-thirds of the food bank's clients, and does not hide his anger: "This is unthinkable in a country like the United States?and, on the surface, doesn't seem plausible for a place like Alameda County, right in the heart of one of the most affluent regions of the world."

"But when you start digging into the root causes of this issue, it's very clear what's driving it," Altfest continues. "While the economy has improved, it's left our low-income neighbors behind. Simply put, low-income households rarely share in the gains of economic prosperity. The cost of living has skyrocketed while wages have stagnated (if not gone down accounting for inflation and relative to the cost of living)." Actually, Altfest underemphasizes the inequity. Had the minimum wage kept up with inflation since the 1960's, it would now stand at around $26 per hour.

Per their website, Alameda County Community Food Bank distributes fresh, healthy food through 240 strategically located agencies, from soup kitchens to day care centers, providing nearly 450,000 meals per week. The ACCFB has also been a national leader among food banks in working to remove carbonated drinks from distribution. Leading by example, over the last decade it has increased its distribution of fresh fruits and vegetables by 1,700%. These are great accomplishments, but they ultimately demonstrate a tragic scale of need. "Whether we're aware of it or not," says Altfest, "we all know someone who has struggled with hunger. Most of us are just one catastrophic event ? a medical emergency, for instance ? from possibly needing help ourselves." Which brings us back to root causes: why are so many in need and so many more living precariously?

"After the recession, our state government slashed billions from safety net programs that are designed to keep these households afloat," notes Altfest. "Yet despite major surpluses now, those programs have not been restored. In Alameda County a family of four with two working adults now needs between $80,000 and $90,000 a year just to meet basic expenses ? and that's many times the threshold to qualify for government assistance like CalFresh (food stamps). In short, it's practically impossible for low- to moderate-income households to get by." For the ACCFB, it doesn't make sense to treat the symptoms of hunger without addressing the cause. That's where the organization's vision sets it apart. According to Altfest, "Our five year strategic plan has been hailed as one of the boldest ever created by a food bank to end hunger in their service area." The plan includes the ambition of providing one meal per food-insecure resident per day by 2018. But there is more. "While a big part of this is continuing to increase the food we're able to provide, that alone won't come close to solving this problem. Ultimately, solving hunger will come from strengthening safety net programs, implementing legislation to lift people from poverty, and helping to ensure full participation in government assistance that's already available."

This last point bears repeating. Part of the optical illusion of accepting poverty in our society involves believing the myth that programs like CalFresh are abused by lazy, greedy people. The fact, though, may shock you, as only about 50% of eligible recipients actually receive the benefit, so one of ACCFB's efforts is aimed at outreach to bring the CalFresh program to those who need it. Additionally, Altfest adds, "a majority of the households receiving SNAP that are capable of working, do work; that is, as the name suggests, it's Supplemental, and for most of those it's supplementing their income." More than this though, Altfest points out, solving food insecurity "will require our government to restore and strengthen many other safety net programs through legislative action. Our food bank has one of the most accomplished advocacy programs among food banks in the state and nationwide. We've done a lot of work to build relationships with our legislators and many of them turn to us for information that they take back to the state or U.S. capitol to share with colleagues."

Another successful activity of the ACCFB is its annual Virtual Food Drive. Here donors are able to see the excellent (6:1) return on investment a gift to a food bank can bring. "For a growing number of people," says Altfest, "Virtual Food Drives help them understand the enormous power of their dollar when it goes to work through a food bank. They see that for the cost of a jar of peanut butter, they can actually provide many meals to a family in need. But it still provides some of the satisfaction, so to speak, that comes with the tangibility of a traditional food drive."

With over 13,000 volunteers, direct political engagement and programs like the Virtual Food Drive, Michael Altfest and the staff and volunteers of ACCFB are quiet heroes for tens of thousands of people in Alameda County.

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An English teacher for twenty-five years, first at a college near Buffalo and then at...

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