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High costs, demand keep Valley food pantries busy

Bakersfield College students collect food at the Renegade Pantry ahead of Thanksgiving.
Joshua Yeager
Bakersfield College students collect food at the Renegade Pantry ahead of Thanksgiving.

BAKERSFIELD, Calif. — Kaitelyn Diaz, a Bakersfield College sophomore, has been facing a difficult decision between eating or going to school. But she says, for her, it’s a simple choice.

“If I have to choose my education to get me forward in life, well then I’ll choose it,” she said.

Between inflation and sky-high gas prices, Diaz says she’s had to cut back on expenses – sometimes even skipping meals – so she can afford the 50-mile commute from her Porterville home.

Thanksgiving, a holiday centered around feasting, is a stark reminder of the need she and others face on a daily basis. With the holidays around the corner, local food pantries are seeing a big uptick in need for services while also keeping an eye on high costs. That includes pantries at college campuses in the San Joaquin Valley.

“Usually, when I’m hungry and I have work to do, I just try to put off the growling noises that my stomach makes,” she said.

Bakersfield College’s food pantry is shielding Diaz and other students from going without this holiday. Diaz recently won a turkey in a raffle. But still, everyday items are running low amid high demand.

“Thanks to the pantry I don’t need to buy many items at the grocery store these days,” Allen Usebia, a sophomore, says as he rummages through what’s left of the pantry’s canned foods on a recent day. “The only problem is that sometimes, since these items are in high demand, they run out.”

These stories from students aren’t unique, says Caroline Danielson, a researcher with the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California.

“It’s not just an anecdote, not just limited to high-inflation periods like now, where it may be exacerbated,” she said. “It’s a longstanding issue for California students.”

A recent state law requires college campuses to establish basic-needs centers and direct students to CalFresh, federally known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. The program helps qualifying low-income residents pay for groceries. Danielson says it’s one of the most effective tools the government has to combat poverty, but California ranks near the bottom in terms of enrolling those who are eligible.

Community pantries struggling, too

Bakersfield is the largest city in Kern County, which boasts the nation’s biggest farm economy. Yet the fertile agricultural region suffers some of the state’s highest rates of hunger and food insecurity.

“It’s a sad irony,” says Kelly Lowery, program administrator at Community Action Partnership of Kern. He said demand at the food bank has exploded this year, from about 35,000 people seeking food items in January to 70,000 by October.

“To see it spike in just a matter of months, that’s a little surprising," Lowery added.

Lowery points to inflation for the economic pain many families are feeling. Pantries are serving more employed people than before.

“They didn’t lose their jobs. They didn’t get a reduction in pay. It’s just everything costs more now,” he said.

The food bank makes purchases several months in advance and remains well-stocked for now, Lowery says. If high costs persist, though, he fears the food bank may be forced to limit the number of pantries it can work with.

“Thankfully, we’re not in that situation right now, but I can see it happening down the line if inflation isn’t controlled,” he said.

Joshua Yeager is a Report For America corps reporter covering Kern County for KVPR.