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Reaching the Empty Stomachs of Silicon Valley

While Silicon Valley’s technological prowess beckons a suite of wealthy neighborhoods, parts of San Mateo County remain food insecure, with 11.1% of the population facing the pains of hunger. With project partner Second Harvest Food Bank, Environmental Science and Studies (ESS) seniors Julia Tawney, George Bunkall, Lauren Cloward, and Hanouf Al Jijakli recently finished research addressing the harsh realities of hunger in our surrounding community.

Second Harvest functions as a wholesale distributor to 330 non-profit partner agencies geared towards children and seniors, which together supply nutritious food to a quarter of a million people each month. After ESS Professor Chris Bacon reached out to the organization, they determined that identifying priority outreach locations - those that currently lacked their services - would contribute most to expanding their food service network.

To assess community access to food resources, the SCU research group analyzed both proximity and awareness. Three GIS demographic criteria were developed to analyze how easily individuals could reach healthy food: impoverishment, unemployment, and renter-occupied homes. These three components are common factors in food insecure homes of San Mateo County, where the average apartment goes over $2300 per month and the majority of Second Harvest’s clients earn less than $20,000 annually. To judge awareness, the students conducted 6 interviews and 50 surveys at the Ecumenical Hunger Program and Samaritan House, located in the City of San Mateo. Survey questions focused on communication preferences and access to transportation (e.g., “How easy is it for you to access the Internet?”). To cater to the nearly 25% of Hispanic residents in the county, surveys were given in both English and Spanish.

After analysis, the team determined 10 priority areas in North San Mateo County for Second Harvest to expand operations. These areas had a high number of individuals (12.7%) living with food insecurity. Social media was also recognized for its great potential in increasing connection between regular clients and food assistance distribution sites. The team suggests that Second Harvest creates an interactive, user-friendly map with all distribution sites. And with a number of interviewees commenting on their preference for certain foods, the researchers also recommend that Second Harvest uses social media to relay information about events and specific types of food that are being distributed.

The project was an eye-opening experience for the student researchers, who commented on some of the harsh realities of communities facing hunger. One interviewee had two master's degrees and is now experiencing homelessness, showing that poverty and food insecurity can affect almost anyone. Overall, however, the “interaction with people of all different backgrounds” was a “great experience” for the team. As these students move towards their professional careers, they hope to contribute to ending the enormous disparities of wealth and resource access in urban areas.

food, apr16