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A portrait of hunger in Sonoma County takes shape at the Sebastopol Veterans Building the fourth Thursday of every month.

That's three doors down from my house and across the street.

The Redwood Empire Food Bank truck arrives at about 8 a.m. to begin distributing food to people who otherwise run the risk of going hungry.

A line of seniors, young parents with kids and everyday people of all descriptions curls away from the front door as the driver pulls his rig into place. The line is always there, whether it's raining, foggy or freezing cold.

The nature of hunger — or the insecurity and worry people feel when they don't know if they'll eat tonight or tomorrow — is demonstrated by the fact that some people get there at 7 a.m., well before the 8:30 a.m. start. When doors open, the line reaches all the way around the front of the building. The parking lot is full.

Within a couple hours, between 100 and 150 individuals, representing households that include as many as 450 kids and adults, will carry or wheel away bags, baskets and boxes of bread, canned and packaged foods and produce, all precious stuff that by itself won't feed them through the month but just may keep them from going hungry when the rest of their food resources are exhausted.

I've lived in Sonoma County for most of 41 years, and I was aware of food banks and food pantries. I'm sure I wrote newspaper stories about them in the 25 years I was associated with The Press Democrat, although I can't really remember when and under what circumstances.

To be honest, I don't think I ever paid much more than pedestrian attention to food banks and hunger until I went to work for the Redwood Empire Food Bank about nine years ago, writing press releases, occasional newsletter articles and grant applications.

It didn't take long for me to become a believer in the urgency for food banks, the responsibility for us to support them and the extent to which the Redwood Empire Food Bank responds to people in need as their needs have grown.

When I started in 2002, it served about 35,000 Sonoma County residents every month. When my professional relationship with the the food bank ended in December, it was serving about 78,000 people every month. That number may already be dated.

The most recent U.S. census information tells us that more than one in five American children lives below the poverty line, the worst child poverty rate since 1959.

As I became acquainted with the world that Redwood Empire Food Bank Executive Director David Goodman calls food banking, I came to know some certain truths:

There's no one in a food line who does not need to be there. "Would you stand in line for food if you didn't have to?" Goodman routinely asks skeptics who want to know if all those people really need free food.

There are many reasons why people can't feed themselves, lack of a job, bad luck, a poor decision, old age, poverty, ill health or an injury. Whatever the reason, people who are hungry can't begin to address the reasons why until they have something to eat or their kids have something to eat.

Another thing: People you see in food bank lines are not strangers.

It's easy to create a false layer of separation between food bank recipients and yourself. Those people are someone else. Different.

You can believe that .<TH>.<TH>. until you actually get in line yourself and make contact as I have over the years to take their photographs, talk to them and write their stories.

There's the elderly lady who sews Christmas stockings to cover expenses. A single mom with a part-time job and a kindergartner with asthma. A jack-of-all-trades with no place to work except occasionally on a ranch on the Santa Rosa Plain. And the caregiver picking up provisions for a longtime retired resident of the neighborhood who seldom is able to leave the house.

The portrait of hunger is the portrait of my neighbors — us.

I left the food bank in December. The face of hunger remains just three doors down and across the street.

Bob Klose is a freelance writer and public relations and media consultant. He lives in Sebastopol.

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