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Cal Poly Researchers Present Hunger Study Findings

Jan. 17, 2012

SAN LUIS OBISPO -- San Luis Obispo County families with low incomes are frequently being forced to chose between paying their rent or buying food, or paying their utility bill or buying food. The non-profit SLO Food Bank Coalition has seen a 25 percent increase in the amount of people showing up to request free food over the past year. And most of those who need food assistance are working - but at jobs that pay $250 to $1,500 a month.

Those were just a few of the findings of a year-long research effort coordinated by STRIDE, Cal Poly's center for Science Through Translational Research in Diet and Exercise).

Other findings of the STRIDE Hunger Free Community Study:

  • The 808 individuals interviewed for the study had a "food insecurity" rate of 75 percent, compared to the statewide average of 16 percent. Nazmi said the finding indicates the researchers set out to find the demographic group they were seeking: county residents who rely on social service agencies and non-profit agencies to obtain food.
  • Among those 808 low-income families surveyed, many were working. Some 85 percent of Latinos surveyed reported at least one family member working full time. Only 37 percent of White individuals seeking food assistance were employed.
  • Sixty-one percent of those needing food assistance were working full time -- but only 22 percent of them with benefits. Some 21 percent were working part time.
  • White families' average monthly income was $1,000 on average -- less than Latino families ($1,500). The average monthly income for all San Luis Obispo County residents is $4,637.
  • But white families tended to have only one or two people living in the household. Latino families most often reported two to four people living in the household. So 'per capita' (per person) income was $757 for white households, but $375 for Latino families.
  • Sixty-five percent of white families participating in the survey lived at or below the federal poverty level ($22,000 per year for a family of four); 68 percent of Latino families surveyed lived at or below the federal poverty level. The overall number of people living at or below the federal poverty level in San Luis Obispo County is 13 percent.

Other findings of the Food Availability Study:

For the food availability and price portion of the research, the professors and students used an 89-item market basket, which was adapted from the USDA version to include culturally and regionally relevant foods (including items like avocados and tortillas).
They then created a 41-item sample“shopping list" allowing student researchers to find, price and rate food in each store for quality. Findings in the Market Survey study of the county's 45 major grocery/food stores included:

  • Purchasing the items on the shopping list cost $90.73 when averaging prices from all 45 stores. However, the costs for the same shopping list items at different stores ranged from $74.48 to $111.69.
  • Food prices were lowest in the North County (above the Cuesta Grade), where they averaged $86 for the shopping list.
  • The cost to buy the shopping list items in South County grocery stores averaged $92.
  • Prices were highest in the beach communities (From Cambria to Grover Beach) at $96, and second-highest within the City of San Luis Obispo at $95.
  • Healthier foods cost more: lower-fat ground beef cost an average 33 percent more, higher-fiber bread was 31 percent more expensive.
  • Average number of stores selling fresh fruits or vegetables: 33; Average number of stores selling soda or snacks: 40. Unhealthy items
    were generally available at more stores than healthy items. Unhealthy items (pre-packaged food, snacks high in fat or sodas and sugary drinks) were generally cheaper than healthy items (fresh fruits and vegetables).

About the research:

STRIDE partnered with the Food Bank Coalition of San Luis Obispo County to complete research required by a $100,000 “Hunger Free Communities” planning grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The grant to the Food Bank was only one of 14 awarded across the nation in 2011. Cal Poly received $30,000 from the grant to design and carry out the research.

Professors and students gathered data and conducted interviews between January and November 2011. The research was spearheaded by Kinesiology Professor and STRIDE Director Ann McDermott and Food Science and Nutrition Professor Aydin Nazmi.

The professors and several key undergraduate students trained 84 students and 10 community volunteers to conduct the research. Some 60 food science students visited all 45 major grocery stores in San Luis Obispo County to do a market survey of available foods and their prices in spring, 2011.Example of an image that is floated to the right side

Teams of Kinesiology students and 100 volunteers from other majors across campus spent October and November visiting 54 food distribution and social service delivery sites around the county, completing 808 in-person interviews. The questionnaires used in the interviews were designed to determine how often interviewees had trouble getting food for themselves and their families, and what barriers kept them from getting enough food.

A team of two engineering students designed a database to hold, refine and display findings of both portions of the food study. Professors McDermott and Nazmi analyzed and reported on the findings.

Cal Poly professors and students involved in conducting research on hunger and food availability in San Luis Obispo County presented the initial findings to U.S. Rep. Lois Capps, Cal Poly President Jeffrey D. Armstrong and San Luis Obispo Food Bank Coalition Executive Director Carl Hansen on Jan. 13.

A countywide committee of government, agriculture and social service agencies will use the remaining funds and the data gathered by Cal Poly to create a “Hunger Free Community” plan in 2012. Once the plan is completed, the county or social service agencies will be eligible to apply for USDA grants providing food and other assistance to aid local residents in need.
Read the full study presentation (Power Point pdf)

Kinesiology graduate Christian Cardenas, Cal Poly President Jeffrey D. Armstrong, U.S. Rep Lois Capps, Food Science and Nutrition graduate student Ally Lund, Americorps member Caroline Ginsberg, Professor Ann McDermott, Professor Aydin Nazmi, and Food Science and Nutrition student Rylee Horne.


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