Residents struggle to feed their families in high cost-of-living Peninsula 

click to enlarge A family of four needs to earn $23,000 or less per year to qualify for government food benefits, a low number for a place as pricey as San Mateo County. - SUSAN MONTOYA BRYAN/AP FILE PHOTO
  • Susan Montoya Bryan/AP file photo
  • A family of four needs to earn $23,000 or less per year to qualify for government food benefits, a low number for a place as pricey as San Mateo County.

Rewaida Sulaiman is a 30-year-old Daly City mother of three whose husband, Abdallah, was diagnosed last year with lung cancer. Abdallah provided for the family as a restaurant manager but had to reduce his hours after he became ill. Rewaida Sulaiman suddenly found herself with an empty refrigerator.

The family was connected to a food bank in San Mateo County, from which they now get groceries that save the Sulaimans at least $200 a month.

"My kids are always excited to see what groceries we get each month," she said.

Food banks work as wholesalers, providing food to organizations such as schools, churches and shelters that then distribute it to families.

But qualifying for federal food aid in a region with a high cost of living like the Peninsula can be difficult, and when families can't qualify, parents end up forgoing their own meals to provide enough for their children, according to Kathy Jackson, CEO of Second Harvest Food Bank, which serves both San Mateo and Santa Clara counties.

"An awful lot of the people we provide food to are people who are working, but they can't make ends meet," she said. "Or they're people who hit a pothole in life. I'd call lung cancer a pretty big pothole. And because it's an expensive area in which to live, I think a lot of people don't have much of a personal safety net."

Jackson said state data show that a family of four living in San Mateo County needs to make approximately $83,000 a year to live reasonably. But to qualify for government food services, a family of four must meet the federal poverty level of $23,000 annually.

"I think that poverty tends to look a little bit different here in the Bay Area because the cost of living is so high," Jackson said.

That's where the food banks come in, and grants such as the $45,000 that Second Harvest Food Bank of Santa Clara and San Mateo Counties received from Wal-Mart in May are essential to the organization's mission.

"Overall, we will raise in the course of a year $25 million or more, so that will put that [$45,000 grant] into perspective," Jackson said. "We're delighted to get it, make no mistake, but we need lots and lots of those sizes of gifts to allow us to do what we do, which is to provide more than 15 million pounds of food per year."

The Wal-Mart grant will be used for the Kids Nutrition on Weekends program, which works to provide children from low-income households with nutritious foods they can take home on weekends and vacations.

"More than 33,000 kids in San Mateo County receive free or reduced-price student lunches. And when school goes away, so do those meals," Jackson said.

The Sulaimans still struggle to make ends meet as Rewaida Sulaiman balances caring for the family while accompanying her husband on his many doctor visits. But she said, "A little bit of food can go a long way."

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Emilie Mutert

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