Exclusive: study suggests that 26.8% of the population qualify as food insecure based on risk factors such as missing meals or relying on food banks
Karla Peralta is surrounded by food. As a line cook in Facebook’s cafeteria, she spends her days preparing free meals for the tech firm’s staff. She’s worked in kitchens for most of her 30 years in the US, building a life in Silicon Valley as a single mother raising two daughters.
But at home, food is a different story. The region’s soaring rents and high cost-of-living means that even with a full-time job, putting food on the table hasn’t been simple. Over the years she has struggled to afford groceries – at one point feeding her family of three with food stamps that amounted to $75 a week, about half what the government describes as a “thrifty” food budget. “I was thinking, when am I going to get through this?” she said.
In a region famed for its foodie culture, where the well-heeled can dine on gold-flecked steaks, $500 tasting menus and $29 loaves of bread, hunger is alarmingly widespread, according to a new study shared exclusively with the Guardian.
One in four people in Silicon Valley are at risk of hunger, researchers at the Second Harvest food bank have found. Using hundreds of community interviews and data modeling, a new study suggests that 26.8% of the population – almost 720,000 people – qualify as “food insecure” based on risk factors such as missing meals, relying on food banks or food stamps, borrowing money for food, or neglecting bills and rent in order to buy groceries. Nearly a quarter are families with children.
“We call it the Silicon Valley paradox,” says Steve Brennan, the food bank’s marketing director. “As the economy gets better we seem to be serving more people.” Since the recession, Second Harvest has seen demand spike by 46%.
The bank is at the center of the Silicon Valley boom – both literally and figuratively. It sits just half a mile from Cisco’s headquarters and counts Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg among its major donors. But the need it serves is exacerbated by this industry’s wealth; as high-paying tech firms move in, the cost of living rises for everyone else.
Food insecurity often accompanies other poverty indicators, such as homelessness. San Jose, Silicon Valley’s largest city, had a homeless population of more than 4,000 people during a recent count. They are hungry, too: research conducted by the Health Trust, a local not-for-profit, found food resources available to them are scattered and inadequate.
These days Peralta earns too much to qualify for food stamps, but not enough not to worry. She pays $2,000 a month – or three-quarters of her paycheck – to rent the small apartment she shares with her youngest daughter. “Even just the two of us, it’s still a struggle.” So once a month, she picks up supplies at the food bank to supplement what she buys at the store.
She isn’t one to complain, but acknowledges the vast gulf between the needs of Facebook employees and contract workers such as herself. “The first thing they do [for Facebook employees] is buy you an iPhone and an Apple computer, and all these other benefits,” she laughs. “It’s like, wow.”
The scale of the problem becomes apparent on a visit to Second Harvest, the only food bank serving Silicon Valley and one of the largest in the country. In any given month it provides meals for 257,000 people – 66m pounds of food last year. Inside its cavernous, 75,000 sq ft main warehouse space, boxes of produce stretched to the ceiling. Strip lights illuminated crates of cucumbers and pallets of sweet potatoes with a chilly glow. Volunteers in PayPal T-shirts packed cabbages and apples that arrived in boxes as big as paddling pools, while in the walk-in freezer turkeys waited to defrost.