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The rising cost of food, coupled with a lopsided economic recovery that has left tens of thousands of Sonoma County households still struggling, has led to greater hunger locally, according to the recently released Sonoma County Hunger Index for 2015.

The index found that some 70,000 local households — 36 percent of the county — missed 34 million meals last year.

Overall, 42 percent of the county’s food need in 2015 was either filled by food banks and other programs or went unmet. That’s a 1 percent increase from the year before.

“What surprises me — even with the improvements in the economy — the hunger index still rose by 1 percent in 2015,” said Karen Fies, assistant director of the Sonoma County Human Services Department.

County services “provided more families with assistance and yet we believe that the number of missed meals was still higher,” she said.

The ongoing economic recovery has reduced the number of at-risk families, defined as those with annual incomes of less than $50,000.

However, for those who continue to be at-risk, the unmet need was even greater, leading to the 1 percent increase from 2014 to 2015.

“We believe it’s due to the cost of food during that time period,” Fies said. “The cost of food has increased faster than the assistance programs can keep pace with.”

The county’s hunger index is calculated by totaling the number of meals 70,000 low-income families need according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Plan — about 195 million meals at a cost of $2.35 each.

Those families purchased 113 million meals on their own and obtained another 48 million through assistance programs such as food stamps, the local food bank and school nutrition programs, the report said.

The remaining gap between those totals and the USDA recommendation is 34 million missed meals.

“We know there’s more money going out to families, but the money doesn’t go as far anymore, so the unmet need for meals has increased,” Fies said.

The figure is not meant to be a precise measure of the meals people are missing. People may skip meals to make ends meet or just eat smaller meals, officials have noted.

But some county residents are indeed missing meals, said Marrianne McBride, president and CEO of the nonprofit Council on Aging.

The organization’s Meals on Wheels program delivers hot meals to an average of 1,200 seniors a day. Nearly one in five of those seniors say that 75 percent of their nutrition comes from that single meal, said McBride.

“We serve meals to frail seniors who are isolated in their homes, but we also serve at dining sites,” she said. “At least 80 percent of the seniors who have called us asking for assistance are in need of Meals on Wheels.”

She said some cannot physically prepare their own food, while others do not have access to food or can’t afford to buy food after paying for such things as rent, utilities and prescription drugs.

“Others have been purchasing what they can at the dollar store, which is not nutritious and ultimately compromises their health,” McBride said.

The Council on Aging partners with a food bank to subsidize Meals on Wheels clients with additional food boxes.

David Goodman, executive director of the Redwood Empire Food Bank, said the figures in the county hunger index are so large that they become an abstraction to most people. He said it’s the responsibility of the community at large to make sure hungry people in Sonoma County are fed.

“What those missing meals really represent are people who are struggling,” Goodman said.

He said hunger and food insecurity is spreading into the general population, exacerbated by poor communities that actually subsidize higher-income households with low-wage labor.

It’s not just the marginalized who are going hungry, he said.

“There’s a day in our future where the food bank is going to become this vital component for the well-being of many people in our community,” he said. “It’s not going to be considered this a marginal effort.”

Goodman suggested that local cities should “own a piece of who is hungry” in their respective communities.

“People think we’re subsidizing people by giving them food,” he said. “The people who are hungry are the same people who are helping everybody else out.”

The food bank serves 82,000 people in Sonoma County and provides 12.75 million meals annually.

He pointed out that Sonoma County is one of the most “financially capable” communities in the world and that more investment is needed to significantly reduce hunger.

For years, the county has spent large sums of money to preserve its natural beauty, “but we have some serious human need, and that has its own beauty,” Goodman said. “But it takes dollars. We should start it here. We should be the role model. We should develop the systems.”

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

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