The Silicon Valley paradox: one in four people are at risk of hunger

Exclusive: study suggests that 26.8% of the population qualify as food insecure based on risk factors such as missing meals or relying on food banks

Karla Peralta is surrounded by food. As a line cook in Facebooks cafeteria, she spends her days preparing free meals for the tech firms staff. Shes worked in kitchens for most of her 30 years in the US, building a life in Silicon Valley as a single mother raising two daughters.

But at home, food is a different story. The regions soaring rents and high cost-of-living means that even with a full-time job, putting food on the table hasnt been simple. Over the years she has struggled to afford groceries at one point feeding her family of three with food stamps that amounted to $75 a week, about half what the government describes as a thrifty food budget. I was thinking, when am I going to get through this? she said.

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In a region famed for its foodie culture, where the well-heeled can dine on gold-flecked steaks, $500 tasting menus and $29 loaves of bread, hunger is alarmingly widespread, according to a new study shared exclusively with the Guardian.

One in four people in Silicon Valley are at risk of hunger, researchers at the Second Harvest food bank have found. Using hundreds of community interviews and data modeling, a new study suggests that 26.8% of the population almost 720,000 people qualify as food insecure based on risk factors such as missing meals, relying on food banks or food stamps, borrowing money for food, or neglecting bills and rent in order to buy groceries. Nearly a quarter are families with children.

We call it the Silicon Valley paradox, says Steve Brennan, the food banks marketing director. As the economy gets better we seem to be serving more people. Since the recession, Second Harvest has seen demand spike by 46%.


The bank is at the center of the Silicon Valley boom both literally and figuratively. It sits just half a mile from Ciscos headquarters and counts Facebooks Sheryl Sandberg among its major donors. But the need it serves is exacerbated by this industrys wealth; as high-paying tech firms move in, the cost of living rises for everyone else.

Food insecurity often accompanies other poverty indicators, such as homelessness. San Jose, Silicon Valleys largest city, had a homeless population of more than 4,000 people during a recent count. They are hungry, too: research conducted by the Health Trust, a local not-for-profit, found food resources available to them are scattered and inadequate.

These days Peralta earns too much to qualify for food stamps, but not enough not to worry. She pays $2,000 a month or three-quarters of her paycheck to rent the small apartment she shares with her youngest daughter. Even just the two of us, its still a struggle. So once a month, she picks up supplies at the food bank to supplement what she buys at the store.

She isnt one to complain, but acknowledges the vast gulf between the needs of Facebook employees and contract workers such as herself. The first thing they do [for Facebook employees] is buy you an iPhone and an Apple computer, and all these other benefits, she laughs. Its like, wow.

The scale of the problem becomes apparent on a visit to Second Harvest, the only food bank serving Silicon Valley and one of the largest in the country. In any given month it provides meals for 257,000 people 66m pounds of food last year. Inside its cavernous, 75,000 sq ft main warehouse space, boxes of produce stretched to the ceiling. Strip lights illuminated crates of cucumbers and pallets of sweet potatoes with a chilly glow. Volunteers in PayPal T-shirts packed cabbages and apples that arrived in boxes as big as paddling pools, while in the walk-in freezer turkeys waited to defrost.

  • Inside a warehouse belonging to Second Harvest food bank in San Jose, California, where PayPal staff volunteered for the day. Photography: Talia Herman

Because poverty is often shrouded in shame, their clients situations can come as a surprise. Often we think of somebody visibly hungry, the traditional homeless person, Brennan said. But this study is putting light on the non-traditional homeless: people living in their car or a garage, working people who have to choose between rent and food, people without access to a kitchen.

He added, Youre not thinking when you pick up your shirts from dry cleaning, or getting your landscaping done, or going to a restaurant, or getting your child cared for, is that person hungry? Its very easy to assume they are fine.

Matt Sciamanna is the sort of person you would assume is fine. Hes young, clever, and a recent graduate from San Jose State University. Yet here on campus, he says, food insecurity is a daily problem. Students, and even part-time professors, have been known to sleep in their cars or couch surf to save money. Sciamanna, who works on the Student Hunger Committee, says a survey of more than 4,000 students found about half have skipped meals due to the cost.

His investment in the issue is informed by his own experience. With his parents unable to finance all his living costs, Sciamanna worked in a restaurant while studying full time. But at 20 he was hit with a life-changing diagnosis: multiple sclerosis, a disease that left his grandmother bedridden. Unable to keep up with the pressures of restaurant work, he took a job on campus that paid just $400 a month.

  • Matt Sciamanna studying. Photo: Jeromy Cesea

My weekly food budget, after other expenses, was $25-$30, he says. Trips to the grocery store became a game of numbers: a bag of apples and bananas cost less than $5 and would last a week. A bag of frozen vegetables, another $5. Sometimes I would see a ripe peach, and I would want it, but then Id think, damn, theyre $1.50 each. Its not like Im asking for a car. Im just talking about a peach. That feeling leaves a scar.

While Sciamanna says his food situation has improved, another fear looms: healthcare costs. His father, a garbage man in San Francisco, has already postponed retirement so that his son can stay on the familys insurance. Without it, Sciamanna says he could face out-of-pocket costs of thousands of dollars a month for his medication. In that scenario, obtaining food would become even more difficult. His parents live in Clear Lake, three hours outside San Francisco, meaning a six-hour daily commute for his father. You feel like youre this dead weight, youre trying to advance yourself but you dont have the money. Its a shitty feeling.

Hunger and the housing crisis go hand-in-hand. In Santa Clara County, the median price of a family home has reached a new high of $1.125m, while the supply of homes continues to shrink. A family of four earning less than $85,000 is now considered low income. These realities mean food insecurity cuts across lines of race, age and employment status.

On a cold, bright afternoon at an elementary school in Menlo Park, kids trickled out of their classrooms and onto the playground. A food distribution was being arranged in the school gymnasium, and adults lined up outside with strollers and shopping carts, waiting for the doors to open. Most were women, many of them mothers whose children attend the school. Once inside they moved slowly and quietly around tables filled with bags of fresh produce, milk and bread, canned goods and beans.

  • A food distribution taking place at an elementary school in Menlo Park. Bottom right, Vicky Avila-Medrano, a food connection specialist with Second Harvest. Photography: Talia Herman

The Latino community is passing through a hard time, says Vicky Avila-Medrano, a food connection specialist. She runs a program that sends current and former food bank users out into the community, which has been disproportionately affected by the cost-of-living crisis.

Here in Silicon Valley, we have a big problem. This is a beautiful place to live for people in the tech industry, but we are not working in that industry.

Even people who have full-time jobs can find themselves with no way to put food on the table. Outside the gym, Martina Rivera, a 52-year-old mental health nurse, explained that her troubles began when her entire building was evicted last year. (Mass evictions have swept the area as landlords seek higher-paying tenants). Issues in her personal life, which she preferred not to detail, left her separated from her two children and their father. She thought about moving in with family, but worried about the burden. My brother was recovering from a stroke, and my mother is old, she says. I couldnt put more struggle on them. So what I found was my car.

  • Martina Rivera, 52, originally from Peru, lived in her car for six months while working as a nurse.

She told herself it was only temporary. I work night shifts at a veterans hospital, so I would go to my moms house to shower, and wait until it was time to work. I waited and waited for the storm to pass. Eventually she found a room without a private bathroom or kitchen. She shopped for food at 99 cent stores, ate mainly canned food, and cooked in a microwave. It took a toll on her health, she says; she gained weight.

I was having panic attacks. My body was like the walking dead. But I thought, I need to keep strong. And I never quit my job.

Rivera says that for many working people, pride is a barrier to admitting need. People dont have money to buy food, but they are shy to ask. But there is no reason to feel ashamed.

The day before Thanksgiving, Karla Peralta invited me to her home. She loves to cook, and prides herself on pulling together a healthy meal even when resources are scarce. I have to cook with what I have. Even if I only have a piece of chicken, a little bit of this and that, I am a cook. I make it work.

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Author: Billy Roland

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