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Local food pantries, charities rise to the challenge of food insecurity

Around 8,000 Placer County families have struggled to put meals on table
By: Amber Marra, Journal Staff Writer
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It was only Karen Molina's second time at the Auburn Interfaith Food Closet and the volunteers there were ready to help her when she needed it.
Molina sat with her 13-month-old son, David, patiently waiting for her order of food meant to serve a family of four.
Volunteers brought out bags of bread, a frozen pizza, and, perhaps most importantly for David, a few bags of diapers.
It was just another Thursday afternoon shift for Bob Simon and his crew. Simon has been volunteering at the food closet for 10 years and has seen the number of families served fluctuate through the recession.
"When I first started we averaged 15 to 20 families (per day) and then it started to go up to 40, 50, even up to 70," Simon said. "The recession has made a big difference; times are hard right now."
Another volunteer said she can remember a day when the food closet served 84 families between the hours of 10 a.m. and 2 p.m.
The Auburn Interfaith Food Closet is just one of multiple ways families in need can come upon meals for a lesser cost.
According to a recently released policy brief by the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research, 8,000 adults in Placer County could not afford a balanced diet during the recession, making them food insecure.
That number is troubling to Janice LaRoux, executive director of First 5 Placer County Children and Families Commission. LeRoux notes that one of the biggest problems facing the food insecure of Placer County is the fact that some people just don't know where to go.
"What we're finding with this downturn are families that never had to ask for help before that are now in a position to do so, but they don't know what to do or where to go," LeRoux said.
LeRoux said only 38 percent of those eligible for the CalFresh food stamps program in Placer County actually take advantage of it. She added that the childhood poverty rate in Placer County has doubled in the last five years from 7 percent to around 14 percent.
"Childhood poverty directly relates to food insecurity, so that's an issue in itself," LeRoux said.
LeRoux points to places like the Lighthouse Family Resource Center in Lincoln, or the family resource centers at Kids First in Auburn and Roseville. Help and information can also be found in Kings Beach at the North Tahoe Family Resource Center.
Roger Ingram, director and farm advisor of the University of California Cooperative Extension, has been working with First 5 and LeRoux on educating families on how to put healthy food on the table.
Ingram said starting in May, around 48 boxes of food started to be provided to families in Lincoln on a weekly basis for 11 weeks. For another 11 weeks families in Auburn will be provided boxes of food.
The boxes of food provide some fresh produce, so families receiving the boxes can also gain information about creative ways to serve some of the food they might not be comfortable with.
Ingram offers the example of kale chips.
"It intertwines the idea of eating more produce to sort of reduce the amount of junk food consumption and lower the rate of obesity," Ingram said.
Families that complete a nutrition education program through the extension service can get up to $20 in produce vouchers for the Foothill Farmer's Market. Carol Arnold, general manager of the Foothill Farmer's Market, is trying to expand on this voucher program.
Ten-dollar vouchers are already available through the farmer's market and a $4,000 grant will help continue that program, Arnold said.
Around 80 families were also recently taken to a local farm through the extension service. There they were able to sample fresh fruit and vegetables to make the farm-to-table connection, Ingram said.
The extension office has also been working with local teenagers who are soon-to-be or currently single parents. Ingram said it was tough to get some of the teenagers to attend a farmers market, but that changed after they tried some locally grown peaches.
"There was very little interest in going to the farmers market, but in the fall we brought them some peaches to sample and that was pretty much the gateway fruit," Ingram said.
Now, those teenagers can't wait to go to the farmers market. Ingram said their teacher took the effort a step further by providing a van to transport the single parents to and from the market every week.
Ingram said all of the efforts to help the food insecure are "gargantuan," but more help is always needed. Michelle Fish, coordinator of the Auburn Salvation Army Food Closet, knows this all too well.
During the last fiscal year, Fish said the food closet saw a 12 percent increase in first-time food pickups.
"Some days between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. we see 45 to 60 people cram into this little place for food," Fish said. "Their bills are still the same but the unemployment is such that they're not making it in this world."
Food can be donated to the Salvation Army and Interfaith food closets from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday.
Contact Amber Marra at amberm@goldcountrymedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @Amber_AJNews.