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How hungry is California? Millions struggle to eat well in an abundant state

Families carry boxes full of fresh produce during a food bank event at El Verano elementary on Nov.1 , 2019.
Anne Wernikoff
Families carry boxes full of fresh produce during a food bank event at El Verano elementary on Nov.1 , 2019.

California is full of food, yet scarred by hunger.

Despite the state producing nearly half the country’s fruits and vegetables, one in five Californians are food insecure, meaning they have limited or uncertain access to adequate food. Food insecurity does not necessarily cause hunger, but hunger is a possible outcome.

People experience food insecurity in different ways. Some families may only eat lesser quality food, while others may simply eat less.

Food insecurity can have long-term physical and mental health effects. Research shows that food-insecure children can experience developmental delays and have trouble learning language. Children also are more likely to fall sick, recover more slowly, and be hospitalized more often if their access to food is inconsistent, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. Food-insecure adults face higher rates of obesity, chronic illness, anxiety and depression.

The COVID-19 pandemic brought sharper awareness to hunger in California, as many Americans experienced food insecurity for the first time. In the last year record inflation drove food prices up 4.5%. Then in April, an influx of federal food aid from the pandemic dried up. The state has tried to take advantage of federal programs that provide food aid and expand the pool of who is eligible for help. Still, some warn that the number of food-insecure Californians will rise far beyond 20% in 2023.

Here’s a look at how big the problem is, why it’s challenging to get help to those who need it and some potential solutions to hunger in California.

CalMatters is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.