SAN BERNADINO, Calif. – Around 11 a.m. Cyrilene begins organizing the kitchen at the Highland Senior Center, as she does on most Mondays and Tuesdays. She grabs the metal container prepped with roast beef and cheese slices from the refrigerator and checks the temperature. Then, she starts the assembly line.
Placing slices of roast beef and cheese on bread, Cyrilene puts each sandwich in a styrofoam container then hands it off to staff member Amy, who adds carrots, a pear, and potato chips. The assembly line finishes with Penny Lilburn, the center’s executive director, who adds a carton of milk and lists off the orders to volunteer drivers. “This one’s a double,” shouts Lilburn, just as the center’s Grab & Go lunch program begins at 11:30 a.m.
Cyrilene has been a regular at the center for about 20 years, the last nine as a volunteer. During the pandemic, she relied on the food given away at the center like many other San Bernardino residents who lack easy access to affordable, fresh food near where they live.
With $140,000 in funding from the City of San Bernardino, the center provides lunches for 40 individuals and dinner for another 40 individuals — seniors can sign up for one or the other. On Mondays and Fridays, some arrive at 10 a.m. for a food giveaway hosted by the center. Donations come from Walmart and include poultry, vegetables, dairy products and if they’re lucky, beef.
Located along Highland Avenue near the unincorporated community of Patton, the center borders the vicinity of the City of San Bernardino where fast food restaurants and liquor stores exist in abundance. A sizable portion of residents in the area have low access to grocery stores — a “food desert,” according to the federal government.
Living with poverty
Within this section of San Bernardino, an estimated 14.5 percent of residents live below the poverty line. A little over 200,000 residents, including more than 85,000 children across San Bernardino County experienced food insecurity in 2019, according to Feeding America, a nonprofit with a national network of 200 food banks and 60,000 food pantries and meal programs.
“More than 700,000 of San Bernardino residents (or about 30 percent) are eligible to receive SNAP or SNAP-Ed benefits, underscoring the extent of poverty in the county,” Yen Ang, SNAP Education Program Assistant Director of San Bernardino County told the Black Voice News. “Sadly, the COVID pandemic has increased the rates of poverty and food insecurity.”
The pandemic exacerbated food insecurity and re-emphasized the presence of so-called food deserts among communities of color like Patton, where 31 percent of residents are Black, 31 percent are White, and 28 percent are Hispanic. Next door, in West Highlands, 61 percent of the population is Hispanic, and 16 percent is Black.
Organizations like the Highland Senior Center and food banks have increased their outreach and revamped their food programs to meet community needs as COVID-19 continues but face growing concerns over funding and resources. San Bernardino residents in search of a solution are creating community gardens to grow and sell affordable produce in their neighborhoods. However, given the scope of the problem, experts are not sure if these gardens can end the “food apartheid,” a term preferred by activists.
Call it ‘food apartheid’
“What I would rather say instead of ‘food desert’ is ‘food apartheid,’ because ‘food apartheid’ looks at the whole food system, along with race, geography, faith and economics,” food activist Karen Washington explained in Guernica. “You say, ‘food apartheid’ and you get to the root cause of some of the problems around the food system. It brings in hunger and poverty.”
The 2020 Community Indicators Report revealed San Bernardino has one of the highest rates (26 percent) of families living in poverty in the county as reflected by the scarcity of affordable grocery stores.
“The need is greater than you’d think,” said Jeff Novak, Highland Senior Center’s Transportation Assistance Program Coordinator. On any given day, 300 seniors sign up to receive lunch or dinner, but the center can only provide 80 meals a day. During the center’s Grab & Go Lunch drive-through, Novak explained that some seniors who rely on the center’s services have no relatives to take them grocery shopping and some are solely dependent on their social security benefits.
“Hunger is generally a symptom of poverty. It’s an effect of poverty,” said Brandon Romano, Program Manager for Community Action Partnership San Bernardino (CAPSB), the largest food bank operating in the county. He noted how food insecurity often comes with a job loss, low income, or a health issue, COVID-19-related or not.
COVID-19 made it worse
“COVID exacerbated the inefficiencies of the programs that we already have,” said Kameron Mims-Jones, a policy advocate with Nourish California.
The pandemic disproportionately impacts Black and Brown communities and among them, older adults experience higher risks due to age, health, and environment. Food insecurity has aggravated these risks, she explained. The Family Service Association (FSA) has been providing senior nutrition services to the Inland Empire since the 1990’s. Clients 66 years old and older make up 57 percent of those they serve.
“We almost tripled in size, our meal program since the start of the pandemic, to address the access need for seniors and just the safety issues for vulnerable seniors going out of their homes to access food. It wasn’t a safe time and we’re still seeing a slow decline in that,” explained Shannon Gonzalez, FSA Chief Operating Officer.
Tackling food insecurity among low-income populations is pursued by food banks and community partners, including churches, who work together to meet the needs of vulnerable communities. Life Center Church in San Bernardino, for example, has worked throughout the years to distribute food to residents.
“Yes, I can walk to the store, but if that store doesn’t have healthy foods, it’s still a problem and a crisis for the community,” said Pastor Keith Tolbert of the Life Center Church. “And so sometimes, we look at where stores are located and say, well there’s a store in the area, but we found that those stores…sold junk to our people, they did not sell fruits and vegetables.”
Congregant Hilda Barnett explained that there is a definite need for healthy and affordable food that is accessible to the community and before COVID-19, the church did food giveaways. Their most recent food giveaway set a goal of distributing one hundred bags of non-perishable food.
Community partners, like the Life Center Church, are essential to food banks who rely on them to distribute food and host events. The church is partnering with a local Feeding America chapter to provide Thanksgiving meals. Feeding America Riverside/San Bernardino’s Homebound Emergency Relief Outreach (HERO) program has provided meals to over 9,000 residents across the two counties. “If you’re struggling with food insecurity, it’s so hard to break out of that cycle of poverty. If you are a person or family, trying to address your basic needs throughout the day, it’s so hard to address the root causes of poverty,” Community Action Partnership’s Romano emphasized.
The persistent presence of food banks emphasizes the longstanding institutional and systemic racism that continues to plague these historically excluded communities and contributes to other socioeconomic inequalities including food insecurity, hunger, and lack of affordable housing.
Community gardens take on ‘food apartheid’
A new grassroots trend is growing throughout San Bernardino County in communities with low or no access to affordable fresh fruit and vegetables, where residents create community garden partnerships as a solution to food apartheid.
“All over the city you see community gardens that are growing in vacant spaces, and the interest and the concern for folks who were already doing this type of work, now have a larger platform in order to get the rest of the community to understand — look, we have to be sustainable, we have to be resilient in our own resources,” explained Kimberly Calvin, council member representing the City of San Bernardino’s 6th Ward.
Maria Alonso is the founder and executive director of Huerta Del Valle, which means Orchard of the Valley. Alonso’s organization works to educate, train, and encourage residents of the Inland Empire to build the community they want.
“My inspiration for creating Huerta Del Valle is my need for healthy food. I received, in June 2010, the diagnosis for my son — ADHD,” Alonso explained. “In this case the doctor gave me the solution for my son, ‘he needs the pill for the problem or change the diet,’ and I changed the diet.”
Since 2010, Huerta Del Valle has operated community gardens in San Bernardino County. They plan to open more locations in Riverside County, in line with their vision of “building one garden every mile and transforming our urban landscape into one that is equitable (and) addresses systemic inequity in our vulnerable local communities.”
Although community gardening has presented itself as a solution to food insecurity and access, the practice is not feasible for everyone. Gardening takes time and dedication that some households simply may not be unable to commit to, like single-parent homes, while cultural, historical, and generational differences can also be barriers.
Mims-Jones applauded the efforts of such gardens in fostering community and building agency around solutions to equitable access, but she’s unsure if community gardens are scalable enough to combat the sizeable problem that is food apartheid given their systemic depths.
An ongoing approach to food apartheid
In Barstow, a high desert city in San Bernardino County where 35 percent of adults live below the poverty line, a local organization has launched an operation to help get nutritious food to those who lack access.
New Hope Village, Inc. is a nonprofit working to minimize food insecurity throughout Barstow with H.O.P.E. — Helping Other People Eat, a mobile food pantry that also serves other nearby San Bernardino communities of Lenwood, Hinkley, Daggett, Yermo, Newberry Springs, and Baker. The small operation is one of the programs provided by New Hope Village and led by program manager, Sheri Randolph. H.O.P.E. has been operating since May 2021, primarily supported by funding from the COVID Food Assistance Program awarded to San Bernardino County.
“We applied and were granted funding through April 2022. We also have received funding from the Inland Empire Health Plan (IEHP) and Southwest Gas for the program,” according to H.O.P.E. “We are currently applying for various grants to cover the cost of the program after April 2022.”
Like H.O.P.E., the Grab & Go Lunch and Dinner program at the Highland Senior Center relies on funding from the county to provide meals. After the “COVID money” is gone, the center may be forced to return to serving only lunch, but will continue with the food giveaway program that predates COVID-19. Long-lasting and sustainable solutions to the complex issues of inequity that perpetuate food apartheid among historically underrepresented communities remains elusive, but grassroots efforts have been able to chip away at the problem.
“I would hope that COVID would have taught us all to look deeper within ourselves, within our community, to find ways to become more sustainable within the community,” said Calvin, a member of the San Bernardino city council.
Breanna Reeves is a Report for America corps member with Black Voice News in Riverside, California, using data-driven reporting to cover issues that affect the lives of Black Californians. This story is part of ‘Barren Mile: COVID-19 and the fight against food apartheid,” the result of a Report for America initiative that brought Black-owned newsrooms from New York, Georgia, Missouri, and California together to look at how COVID-19 impacted food insecurity in their communities.