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Santa Barbara County Poverty Rates Still On the Rise, Census Data Show

With more people living below the poverty line and more families in need of food, local providers are feeling the effects, too

The latest U.S. Census Bureau data quantify what South Coast food providers have known for years — poverty rates are up and more people are in need.

Demand for housing at the Santa Barbara Rescue Mission has been fairly stagnant, but the organization has experienced a 20 percent increase in demand for food during the past three years and is on track to serve 160,000 meals in 2011.

“The same forces that are drawing more people to our doors every night also affect donor dollars,” Santa Barbara Rescue Mission President Rolf Geyling said.

People can come in for breakfast or dinner even if they aren’t staying at the Rescue Mission, which sometimes packs the dining room with 200 people.

“We haven’t run out of food, which is a testament to donors and the resourcefulness of our staff,” he said, adding that while fundraising is more difficult, the organization has kept service at the same levels.

Poverty numbers released by the U.S. Census Bureau show 42.6 million people living in poverty across the country, which includes households living below the threshold of $22,314 in annual income for a family of four. It’s the most people ever recorded since data tracking began in 1952.

Eighteen percent of Santa Barbara County’s 409,497 population lives below the poverty line, including 21.8 percent of children.

Since 2007, the county has seen a 63 percent increase in children living below the federal poverty level, Supervisor Salud Carbajal said in a news release.

Food costs at the Foodbank of Santa Barbara County have risen while monetary and food donations have fallen, but it still supplies food in high demand to about 280 organizations, including the Rescue Mission.

“Hunger is not up because we’ve been able to meet the need,” community programs manager Gina Fisher said.

Grocery stores donate 100,000 pounds of food monthly in the county, and individual and group donors have stepped up.

Organizations that serve families are seeing the biggest uptick in demand, especially with the threat of foreclosures, Fisher said, adding that keeping the house is the priority for families while it’s easier to get food assistance.

About 37,000 adults, or 39.5 percent, live in food insecure households, according to California Food Policy Advocates. Additionally, 27,194 of the county’s children qualify for a free or reduced priced meal at school.

The Foodbank’s strength is in its network of partners and its purchasing power. With every $1 donation, it can buy $17 worth of food.

Also, county residents aren’t taking full advantage of CalFresh, the state’s food stamp program funded by the federal government. The state has only 50 percent of eligible people enrolled, and there are millions of dollars in unclaimed funds for which residents can apply.

Fisher said Assembly Bill 6 could eliminate the requirement for fingerprinting, which is unique to California’s application process.

The federal government also funds food programs through the Department of Agriculture, including 10 percent of what the Foodbank gives out. Some Southern states receive 80 percent of their supply from the government, which puts them in a more vulnerable position if the money is cut.

“A lesson from the economic meltdown has been diversity, diversity, diversity” of sources of food, funding and programs to help people find “food security,” Fisher said.

Noozhawk staff writer Giana Magnoli can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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