November 26, 2022

BAKERSFIELD, Calif. – Kaitelyn Diaz, a sophomore at Bakersfield College, was faced with a difficult decision between eating and going to school. But she says it’s an easy decision for her.

“If I have to choose my education to get ahead in life, then I choose it,” she said.

With inflation and sky-high gas prices, Diaz has had to cut back on her spending — sometimes even skipping meals — to afford the 50-mile commute from her Porterville home.

Thanksgiving, a holiday that is all about celebration, is a stark reminder of the hardships they and others face every day. With the holidays just around the corner, local pantries are seeing a big surge in the need for services while keeping an eye on the high costs. These include pantries on college campuses in the San Joaquin Valley.

“Usually when I’m hungry and I have to work, I just try to shut down the growling sounds of my stomach,” she said.

Bakersfield College’s pantry protects Diaz and other students from forgoing this holiday. Diaz recently won a turkey in a raffle. Nevertheless, everyday items are running out when demand is high.

“Thanks to the pantry, I don’t have to buy a lot of items from the grocery store these days,” says Allen Usebia, a sophomore, as he recently rummaged through the leftovers of the pantry’s tin cans. “The only problem is that these items sometimes run out as they are in high demand.”

These student stories are not unique, says Caroline Danielson, a researcher at the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California.

“This is not just an anecdote, not just limited to periods of high inflation like now, when it can get worse,” she said. “It’s a long-standing problem for California students.”

A recent state law requires college campuses to set up and direct students to basic needs centers CalFresh, known nationally as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. The program helps eligible low-income residents pay for groceries. According to Danielson, this is one of the government’s most effective tools for fighting poverty, but California ranks pretty low in terms of eligible enrollment.

Community supplies are also struggling

Bakersfield is the largest city in Kern County, which boasts the largest agricultural economy in the country. Still, the fertile agricultural region suffers from some of the highest rates of hunger and food insecurity in the state.

“It’s a sad irony,” says Kelly Lowery, program administrator at Community Action Partnership of Kern. He said demand at the food bank had exploded this year, from about 35,000 people looking for groceries in January to 70,000 in October.

“It’s a bit surprising that it’s skyrocketing in just a few months,” Lowery added.

Lowery points to inflation because of the economic pain many families are feeling. Pantries serve more workers than before.

“They haven’t lost their jobs. They didn’t get a pay cut. Everything just costs more now,” he said.

The food bank makes purchases several months in advance and remains well stocked for now, Lowery says. But if the high costs continue, he worries the board could be forced to limit the number of pantries it can work with.

“Fortunately, we are not in that situation right now, but I imagine it will happen later if inflation is not controlled,” he said.

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