San Francisco officials worry that city's hungriest are being left behind 

click to enlarge The City wants to improve its Restaurant Meals Program, which currently provides mostly fast-food meals. - MIKE KOOZMIN/THE S.F. EXAMINER
  • Mike Koozmin/the S.F. Examiner
  • The City wants to improve its Restaurant Meals Program, which currently provides mostly fast-food meals.

San Francisco has climbed out of the economic downturn with a prosperous technology industry driving up real estate costs and putting wads of cash in many people's pockets, yet there remains a structural inequality that leaves many struggling to find enough food — and more specifically, healthy food.

City officials say that the 200,000 San Franciscans whose income is less than 200 percent of the federal poverty line suffer from a lack of access to kitchens, limitations on which restaurants and stores accept food stamps or a widespread failure to obtain such assistance despite their eligibility for it.

The "biggest opportunity" to help the hungry is ensuring that those eligible are receiving food stamps, said Paul Ash, executive director of the San Francisco Food Bank. The nonprofit provides food to those in need at more than 200 pantries citywide.

San Francisco has long failed to enroll about half of those eligible for the federal food stamp program, known locally as CalFresh. Data provided by the Human Services Agency indicates there are 50,815 city residents receiving food stamp benefits, with 19,297 under the age of 18. The average monthly benefit was $209 per household, according to the program's September quarterly report.

Leo O'Farrell, CalFresh program director for the Human Services Agency, said the benefits will total $95 million in federal aid this year.

City officials say they can boost those numbers next year. The Human Services Agency has to conduct outreach and enroll low-income adults who have become eligible for Medi-Cal under the federal Affordable Care Act, which takes effect in 2014. During this process, city officials plan to sign up these people for other benefits and estimate that an additional 27,000 people will enroll in CalFresh.

As The City hopes to boost food stamp enrollment, it also wants to improve the Restaurant Meals Program, which allows elderly, disabled or homeless people to use food stamps to buy meals at participating restaurants. The idea is these recipients might not be able to prepare their own meals, because many live without kitchens in single-occupancy room residences.

A May study of the program found there were only 64 participating restaurants, of which 49 were fast-food chains such as Burger King, KFC, Taco Bell and Subway.

"In the Excelsior-Ingleside, we have about 650 people qualified for restaurant meals and we only have a Burger King, KFC or Taco Bell that will take them," said Paula Jones, who oversees food policies for the Department of Public Health.

The study found there were 4,744 homeless, 3,743 elderly and 2,133 disabled residents who can use the benefits at participating restaurants. "We'd like to see a lot more local restaurants, healthy restaurants, participate in that program," Jones said.

Many of The City's poor live in what are known as single-room occupancy units, or SROs. Many of these units lack kitchens, city officials said, and some residents cite that as a reason that they skip meals or suffer from malnutrition. There are an estimated 19,000 housing units without kitchens citywide. The health department plans to launch a study of the occupants to determine how best to address their food and nutrition needs.

In 2005, The City created a food-security task force that issues regular reports on the progress of addressing hunger in San Francisco. The information is designed to inform elected officials, and a new report is expected in the coming weeks.

The results of past reports have shown increasing needs, and there's no reason to suggest the new one will be any different.

"We're still distributing the same amount of food as two, three years ago at the height of the recession," Ash said.

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