Fighting hunger in Alameda County is more than connecting people with food. It’s also about connecting everyone with healthy and economical choices — and disconnecting from empty calories and poor food choices that people may not even realize they are consuming. That’s why the Alameda County Social Services Agency, or SSA, and partner agencies launched the “Rethink Your Drink” and “CalFresh for Health” campaigns.
CalFresh — known federally as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP — is the country’s largest anti-hunger program. Each year, the SSA works with our community partners to call attention to the importance of CalFresh benefits in our community. CalFresh benefits are 100 percent federally funded, and they help families and individuals put food on the table. Research shows that CalFresh yields important long-term benefits in terms of participants’ economic self-sufficiency, health and educational attainment, especially for children.
But county data also shows that 54.6 percent of adults and 34.7 percent of school-age children are overweight or obese, and 63.7 percent of adolescents drink one or more sugary drinks each day. As a result, they are potentially adding an additional 1,000 calories per week to their diets in sugary drinks alone. This is a toxic recipe for heart disease, hypertension and other related health morbidities that are preventable.
Approximately 55,784 county residents receive CalFresh assistance each month. The CalFresh program serves an economically vulnerable population that may not be aware of its food options and purchasing power through the CalFresh program. The SSA is committed to ensuring that children and families do not make unhealthy food choices as a result of a lack of information, food education or access to healthy food options. In partnership with the Alameda County Community Food Bank and the Alameda County Public Health Department, SSA is committed to raising food choice and health awareness, providing access to affordable fresh fruits and vegetables at local farmers markets, and empowering CalFresh recipients to be informed consumers.
In Alameda County, people of color disproportionately receive public benefits and reside in high-poverty neighborhoods, where health care providers and physical infrastructure such as supermarkets are lacking. In 2015, approximately 1 in 3 Black people, 1 in 4 Latinx people and 1 in 9 Asian people — compared to 1 in 15 white people — lived in such neighborhoods. The overrepresentation of people of color in distressed environments with fewer community institutions, fewer assets and fewer opportunities is a well-documented cause of health disparities, both physical and emotional.
These health disparities sparked the CalFresh for Health campaign, designed to raise awareness about the impact of sugar-sweetened beverages and to fulfill the county’s Measure HH commitment to protect the health and wellness of children and adults by monitoring the distribution of high-calorie, low-nutrition sugary drinks. The campaign also aims to educate CalFresh recipients on the health benefits associated with purchasing fresh seasonal foods at local farmers markets through the “Get More at the Farmer’s Market” initiative. There are farmers markets throughout the county that accept electronic benefit transfer, or EBT, cards and participate in Market Match, allowing CalFresh participants to use their benefits to increase their buying power and make healthy food purchases.
We recognize that there is no “magic bullet” to a healthy lifestyle. It is only through a sustained effort promoting education, access and healthy lifestyle choices that economically vulnerable communities and communities of color will achieve parity with their counterparts. Rethink Your Drink and CalFresh for Health are initial steps to changing the way we all think about food, nutrition and our communities.
Lori A. Cox is the director of the Alameda County Social Services Agency.