Closing the Food Gap
Index Demonstrates the Extent of the Hunger Locally
Drew Starbird says he became aware of the Bay Area’s hunger issues in a personal way when his children were going to public school and it became clear to him that some of their classmates were coming to school hungry.
“The kids who’d had breakfast had an advantage over those who didn’t,” he says, “and that didn’t seem right. It drove home the reality that the people affected most by hunger are children.”
Starbird, recently appointed Dean of Santa Clara University Leavey School of Business, acted on his concerns by serving two six-year terms on the board of directors of the Second Harvest Food Bank. In the course of that extensive volunteer effort, he spotted some shortcomings in the understanding of the extent of the problem and decided to do something about it.
Specifically, no one had really tried to measure the extent of the “food gap” — the difference between the amount of food needed by the hungry and the amount provided by the Food Bank and other relief agencies. To calculate that, Starbird worked with a team from the Food Bank and SCU to develop a Hunger Index, which is now being used in Santa Clara and San Mateo counties to measure the need for food assistance.
“It made clear what the Food Bank does and how big the problem really is,” he says.
For 2008, the most recent year for which figures are available, the Index shows that Santa Clara County agencies provided 90 million meals, but that still left a shortfall of 147 million meals for people needing them. In San Mateo County the gap was even greater, with 23 million meals provided, but another 63 million meals needed.
“It’s hard for people to see the problem because we’re not in a famine situation,” Starbird said. “It’s more a matter of malnutrition leading to health problems, learning problems, and other social ills. A child could be missing three meals a week, but if those meals are breakfast before school, he or she is pretty much out of it for the rest of the day.”
In order to calculate the index, Starbird and his team combined statistics from the U.S. Department of Commerce, the USDA, and other agencies to determine the need for food assistance. Calculating the supply of assistance proved to be more difficult because of the diversity of providers —food stamps, school lunch programs, Meals on Wheels, senior nutrition programs, church soup kitchens and the like — and because of the differences in the way providers keep records. Nevertheless, he says he feels “pretty confident” about the results.
Research on the Hunger Index is supported by Leavey’s Food and Agribusiness Institute, which provided research assistants and economic and statistical assistance, as well as Starbird’s time.
“This is the sort of community service work a business school and university should be doing,” Starbird said. “We’re uniquely qualified to make a contribution toward solving the problem through research and information, and, after all, people give money to the Food Bank so it can buy food, not do surveys.”
Starbird believes the problem of hunger in the area can be solved. The amount of money it would take, $400 million, is small change given the wealth in Silicon Valley. The more critical issue, he says, is providing the infrastructure to get the food to the right people at the right place at the right time.
“The recession has made people more aware of the problem, and they’ve stepped up and helped the Food Bank ramp up its services,” Starbird says. “It’s a question of will, and I just hope the will is there to solve the problem.”