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Sonoma County residents missed an estimated 35 million meals last year because of poverty, significantly fewer than the previous year but still far too many for a region of such wealth and agricultural bounty, attendees at a hunger forum heard Thursday.

More than 200 people from a variety of social service organizations converged on the Redwood Empire Food Bank for Sonoma County’s first Hunger Index Forum.

The event sought to investigate the causes of hunger in the county and explore ways the network of service organizations can work to reduce the gap between the meals people in poverty need and what they’re getting by on.

“Despite the improvement, the meal gap is still unacceptably high,” said Oscar Chavez, Sonoma County’s assistant director of human services. “We know that we still have a lot of struggling families who are not able to make ends meet and continue to be in low-wage jobs.”

In 2013, the meal gap was estimated to be 47 million meals, 34 percent higher than the 35 million estimate for 2014.

The gap is calculated as follows. The county estimates there are about 200,000 people who need assistance to be able to afford three square meals every day. That’s 216 million meals in a year, estimated by the federal government to cost $2.27 per meal. Low-income families are able to purchase about 129 million meals, while food banks, Meals on Wheels, soup kitchens and other organizations provide about 52 million per year.

That leaves a gap of 35 million meals a year. The figure is not meant to be a precise measure of the meals people are missing. The county has no way of knowing whether people skip meals to make ends meet or just eat smaller meals or eat very modest meals, said George Malachowski, a program analyst for the county Human Services Department.

But experience tells social service workers that a common way for people in poverty to get by is by missing meals, Malachowski said.

“Most of us personally know mothers that skip meals to provide food for their children and older adults whose only meal is provided by Meals on Wheels,” he said.

The meal gap has narrowed over the past year for several reasons. The largest is the improvement in the economy, said Gail Atkins, director of programs for the Redwood Empire Food Bank. When the job market improves, more can people find work and fulfill their food needs, she said.

Another reason is that social service organizations are doing a better job of getting people enrolled in assistance programs, such as the CalFresh program, formerly called food stamps, Atkins said. The Redwood Empire Food Bank recently opened an office to assist people in applying for CalFresh, she said.

The forum attempted to focus on ways to remove the barriers between people and the food they need. Attendees surveyed said the root causes of hunger include inadequate income, limited access to healthy and nutritious food, lack of education about food resources, unaffordable housing and the higher cost of healthy food.

Increased education and cooperation between organizations were cited as keys to narrowing the gap even further. Educating people about ways to eat nutritiously on a budget also was cited as a major need.

To drive home the point, those attending the meeting were served a chef-prepared meal that cost less than $2.27 per person: squash soup, quinoa, broccoli and beet salad and a roll.

“While the issue of hunger and the complexity of it may be a challenge, the solutions are quite simple,” Chavez said. “There are things we can actually do to close the gap, but it’s going to take all of us to work together.”

One of the challenges facing food banks is finding ways to secure the sources of food upon which they rely, said David Goodman, executive director of the Redwood Empire Food Bank, which provides food to 180 organizations that provide food for 82,000 people every month.

Improvements in inventory control systems at grocers and other food companies have decreased the amount of food they’re looking to donate, he said. Competition for that food from retailers such as the Dollar Store also is on the rise, he said.

“We have a challenge ahead of us to figure out where that food is coming from, and that’s what keeps us food bankers up at night,” Goodman said.

Though hunger is a “formidable opponent,” Goodman said it can be solved with some fairly simple solutions. Many people can afford to donate more — more time, more food, more money — than they actually do.

“I would challenge you to double what you are doing,” Goodman said.

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 521-5207 or kevin.mccallum@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @srcitybeat.

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