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Some 70,000 low-income and working-class families in Sonoma County skipped an estimated 34 million meals in 2015, according to the latest “hunger index” released by the county Human Services Department.

The figure represents about 41 percent of the 82 million meals these families needed throughout the year but could not afford to buy. For these families, the other 49 million meals, or 59 percent, are covered by food assistance programs such as CalFresh, food banks, schools meals and the WIC supplemental nutrition program.

That meal gap has remained unchanged in the past three years, despite economic improvement since the recession.

Since the recession, incomes have improved slightly and brought some families out of the lowest economic strata, though not enough to lift them out of what has become known as “food insecurity,” said George Malachowski, program development manager for the Sonoma County Human Services Department.

“The recovery for those families at the bottom of the economy is relatively the same,” said Malachowski. “For those families, it means they’re not making a lot more money and the food assistance is not increasing so that missing meal gap that the hunger index shows is still too high.”

The hunger index is a countywide initiative spearheaded by Human Services Department and a coalition of local food assistance providers and organizations that fight hunger and promote nutrition education.

These groups include Ag Innovations, Catholic Charities, Council on Aging, Petaluma Bounty, Redwood Community Health Coalition and Redwood Empire Food Bank.

The index is derived by estimating how much it costs to purchase a healthy meal, based on the monthly USDA food guide, which is about $2.34 a meal per person. For a family of four, at three meals a day, 365 days a year, the annual food cost is about $10,000, Malachowski said.

To determine the number of missed meals, the county estimates how much households with annual incomes of $50,000 or less are actually spending on food.

Malachowski said families with annual incomes of less than $50,000 are the most likely to skip meals.

“We see incomes going up, but we’re not seeing people get out of that $50,000 range,” he said.

Karen Fies, director of the human services department, said a fifth of the county’s population purchases food with CalFresh, or food stamps.

“CalFresh helped local, at-risk families buy 31 percent of the needed meals in 2015,” she said.

But she said “government funding can’t meet 100 percent of our county’s basic food needs — it takes help from everyone in the community to ensure no one goes hungry.”

She said volunteers and donations to charitable organizations “are needed to help close the missing meal gap.”

Although food assistance programs from the county Human Services Department, Redwood Empire Food Bank and Meals on Wheel supplied 48.6 million meals in 2015, that bounty was 2.5 million meals less than were provided in 2014.

Funding sources for food programs, such as government grants, that increased during the recession are now drying up, Malachowski said. That means organizations such as food banks are having to increase their prices, and providers such as pantries are buying and distributing less food.

Officials said the high cost of living in Sonoma County, particularly housing, continues to put tremendous financial pressure on a significant share of the local population.

“The reality is that people are skipping meals just so they can pay the rent,” said Juan Torres, program manager for Catholic Charities’ hunger programs, which focus on the area’s most vulnerable populations ­­— the homeless, immigrants, seniors and very low-income families.

Organizations that form part of the hunger index collaborative are aggressively trying to connect at-risk families to programs such as CalFresh, as well as nutrition education classes and workshops that help families make wiser choices about the food they purchase.

“Low-income families are having a hard time paying the rent, and we’re seeing the negative results of that,” Torres said. “It could be a senior on a fixed income, a family that’s going through some financial issues, divorce or lack of full employment.”

Another common scenario, he said, is where someone is having some type of health issue and has been out of work and unable to support the family. Elece Hempel, executive director of Petaluma People Services Center, which is part of the hunger index collaborative, said she hopes the index broadens people’s understanding of hunger in the local community.

Hempel’s organization runs a program called Petaluma Bounty, which operates a 2.5-acre sustainable community farm and offers a number of programs that promote nutrition and health food choices.

“It’s important to use this hunger index to really reflect on your co-workers, your neighbors, the kid walking to school,” Hempel said. “If we can get the community to realize that the person walking next to you...the odds are they’re hungry.”

You can reach Staff Writer Martin Espinoza at 707-521-5213 or martin.espinoza@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @renofish.