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In California’s far north, a vast food desert makes for hungry kids

In California’s far north, a vast food desert makes for hungry kids

Picture of Jessica Cejnar
Two-year-old Jesse Bryson enjoys a bag of Sun Chips during the Seamless Summer Food program at the Family Resource Center of the
Two-year-old Jesse Bryson enjoys a bag of Sun Chips during the Seamless Summer Food program at the Family Resource Center of the Redwoods in Crescent City, Calif.
(Photo by Jessica Cejnar/Del Norte Triplicate)

Out of 4,228 students who attend Del Norte County public schools, 69 percent are eligible for free and reduced meals.

This is a 2 percent increase from the 2017-18 school year, according to Deborah Kravitz, director of the Del Norte County Unified School District Nutrition Services Department. But even if she didn't know about the statistics, Kravitz says her staff hears first-hand every day just how hungry their charges are.

“Kids will say in passing at breakfast about ‘I'm just so hungry,’” Kravitz said. “Some of my staff have actually had children say, ‘I didn’t get to eat much all weekend. I’m happy to be here to have food.’”

In Del Norte County — population 28,610 — 22 percent of adults experienced poverty in 2016, according to statistics from the California Center for Rural Policy (CCRP) at Humboldt State University. The California poverty rate for 2016 was 14.7 percent.

“In Del Norte County, 16.8 percent of the population is food insecure,” the analysis reads. “In 2014, 29.7 percent of households with children were food insecure.”

Highly rural, the communities outside Del Norte’s county seat of Crescent City are food deserts. CCRP food analyst Molly Noble said the county has higher rates of poverty and one of the highest rates of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (food stamps) use in the state. The lack of land for growing food and the challenge of transporting food to the area are two of the most significant barriers for families seeking healthy, affordable food, she said.

Reporting on a topic as broad as hunger in a county where more than 16 percent rely on SNAP, food pantries and other safety nets to feed their families could go in myriad directions. My 2019 California Fellowship project seeks to reach beyond the statistics and local experts to put a human face on the issue.

What do you do when there is no grocery store in your community? How do you feed your kids? How do you feed yourselves? Do you often have to choose between paying the bills and feeding your family? Are you able to supplement your diet through hunting, gathering, fishing or gardening? And what are the challenges there?

Are senior citizens getting enough to eat? Do health care providers see patients struggling with hunger on a regular basis? What programs are reaching the people they need to reach and which ones aren't working and why?

I particularly want to focus on Klamath residents. Situated on the Yurok Reservation, Klamath is 20 miles from Crescent City’s supermarkets over U.S. 101, a route that was closed recently due to a landslide. The highway shuts down regularly.

Many Klamath residents don't have a vehicle and rely on public transportation to get to Crescent City. The only food stores in Klamath are Pem Mey Fuel Mart and Woodland Villa, both convenience stores catering primarily to tourists.

Its elementary school, Margaret Keating Elementary, has the highest percentage of students participating in the school meal program, according to Kravitz. She estimates that 76 to 83 percent of Margaret Keating students participate in the lunch program, while 70 to 80 percent receive breakfast.

“I hear from staff all the time, these kids are hungry when they come to school,” Kravitz said. “I know there’s limited access to fresh, healthy and affordable food.”

Del Norte’s largest agricultural products are milk and other dairy products, as well as ornamentals such as Easter lily bulbs, cut ferns, flowers and bedding plants, according to CCRP’s analysis.

According to the analysis, only 2.8 percent of Del Norte County is farmland. Approximately 469,130 acres of the county’s 644,078 acres are part of the Six Rivers National Forest. Redwood National and State Parks account for 131,983 acres, roughly 20 percent of the landmass.

Del Norte is one of only nine other counties in the U.S. to have more acreage devoted to bulbs, corms, rhizomes and tubers, according to CCRP. The analysis states that spending dollars locally connects the community’s resources to its needs.

“One wonders how many Easter lily bulbs area residents need,” the analysis states. “What economic and agricultural impacts would a shift in food dollars make in the Del Norte County and Adjacent Tribal Lands area?”

My questions are: How much of the locally produced dairy and milk remains in Del Norte County to feed local families? How many families are able to buy local produce via the farmers market or other avenues? How much acreage is devoted to Lily bulbs and other ornamentals? Are there plans to change this?

Comments

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Great work, Jessica! Thanks for helping bring the plight of our community to a wider audience; efforts like this and journalists (and social advocates, and non-profit mavens) like you are making Del Norte a better place.

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