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San Diego City Heights: Food Scarcity

San Diego City Heights: Food Scarcity, San Diego Food Bank, Challenges, and Opportunities

City Heights is centrally located in San Diego, south of Mission Valley, north of the Martin Luther King Freeway (State Route 94), between Interstates 15 and 805 on the west and 54th Street on the east. The sixteen neighborhoods that comprise City Heights are: Corridor, Teralta West, Teralta East, Colina Park, Cherokee Point, Castle, Azalea Park, Hollywood Park, Fairmount Park, Bayridge, Fairmount Village, Swan Canyon, Islenair, Ridgeview, Chollas Creek and Fox Canyon (City of San Diego, 2015). City Heights is home to immigrants of at least 60 different countries, speaking more than 30 different languages and dialects. This international mix of residents includes South American, Indian, Middle Eastern, East African, Indo Chinese, Korean, Mexican and a host of other ethnicities that co-exist in this community (City of San Diego, 2015).

City Heights is part of the San Diego Unified school district. City Heights has twelve public elementary schools, three public middle schools, two public high schools, two private grade schools, and three charter schools. According to Realtor.com, City Heights’ population consists of approximately 31% single parents; 38% married with children; 18.3% married; and 12.7% single individuals. The current population of City Heights is 78,918 with the median age of 29. City Height’s median household income is $40,423, and the average household net worth is $387,603 (City Heights, San Diego, CA – Lifestyle and Demographics – Realtor.com, 2015).

Shelly Hahne, the Nonprofit Services Manager at The Jacobs and Cushman San Diego Food Bank, stated that the challenge stems from recently implemented, ostensible “improvements” to the community food programs. Since introducing a database and appointment system, wait times have been reduced to 20 minutes or less.  Despite this major change, clients have reported a decrease in overall satisfaction (S. Hahne, personal communication, February 8, 2016).  It is noteworthy that, while the project of the food bank is to “build a more dignified and equitable food system,” (City Heights Project handout, 2015) it did not conduct an assessment of clients at the project’s start, and instead, chose to focus on the food programs and distribution sites themselves, including volunteers.  By silencing the voices of the community it helps feed, the food bank denied itself valuable data about community members’ opinions including ways to improve the distribution system.

The problem has, in some sense, been self-created by the food bank; though they work to combat food insecurity, it is ironic that the very people who directly benefit from the services were not involved in strategizing interventions to improve distribution services.  Although we do not yet have data support the kinds of changes clients would like to see, our assessment tool provides ample opportunities for clients to voice their opinions about all elements of the food distribution process. Shelly has noted while distribution wait lines have been reduced, clients continue to queue for food before their assigned time.  This has been particularly problematic for Price Charities which helps fund the San Diego Food Bank.  Its proximity to the distribution site at The Church of the Nazarene, with its lines of people waiting for food, has been a point of contention for Price, which has stated that its funds to the Food Bank should go toward eliminating lines outside of food distribution sites. Funding from Price could be withdrawn should the food bank fail to meet its program objectives. The food bank’s services could also be jeopardized if client dissatisfaction continues.  If community members were to stop accessing distribution sites, this would put macro-level program monies at risk as well.

Outside of the residents that utilize San Diego Food Banks in City Heights, there are multiple groups impacted by stakeholders. The major stakeholder is Price Charities, as they represent the prominent and continued funding source for this project. Even so, there are numerous donors that are invested in San Diego Food Bank.  Donors, divided up into “circles”, the lowest being an Advocate with a donation ranging from $1000 to $2499 to the Founder’s Circle, with a required donation of $25000 or more.  These donations support projects, like diminishing the line outside of Church of the Nazarene, which can affect the stakeholders that are more directly involved in the implementation of the project.  Non-profit agencies, churches, schools, and health centers in City Heights are all becoming more engaged with the issue of hunger and food scarcity.

The roles of the stakeholders vary depending on if they are a representative of The Jacobs and Cushman San Diego Food Bank.  There is the Food Bank Advisory Board, Board of Directors, staff, volunteers, and leadership councils. Food Bank Leadership Councils are comprised of multiple subcommittees; community outreach, gala, blues festival, corporate outreach, and restaurant. The Food Bank relies on community expertise to drive these subcommittees, but there is a divide between the constituents that frequent the food banks and those that are on said subcommittees. The roles of these entities is to ensure the longevity of the non-profit to provide the essential resources to the vast communities they serve.

Stakeholders outside of the Jacobs and Cushman San Diego Food Bank are the residents that frequent the food banks. This is a diverse population in itself; low-income seniors, low-income military families, low-income elementary school children. They are supported by the donations from growers, retailers, and wholesalers that comprise the majority of the Food Bank’s donations alongside the dedication of volunteers to maintain food drives and package food accordingly.  In the sphere of the community, the self-interest of stakeholders mainly originates from benefiting the community’s growth, non-profit (added resources from Food bank), or for-profit or corporation (tax write off).  Everyone in City Heights is a stakeholder.

As one of the oldest and most ethnically diverse neighborhoods in San Diego County, City Heights has a rich cultural tapestry, including a large immigrant population; at the same time, data suggests that community members struggle to meet standard living expenses.  A 2013 study on City Heights’ economy found that an informal economy, defined as “…transactions that are not generally recorded through formal business accountability systems” (Bliesner & Bussell, 2013) plays an important role in income generation.  City Heights’ thriving informal economy provides part and full-time employment while reinforcing community purpose and individual agency.  While the high concentration of nonprofits in the neighborhood offers innumerable resources for community members, the International Rescue Committee (IRC) and La Maestra, for example, have programs specifically designed to assist with small business growth (Bliesner & Bussell, 2013), which complement an already existing infrastructure of community engagement.  The entreprenuerial spirit of many of City Heights’ residents is reinforced by nonprofits that not only support community needs, but seek to legitimize informal businesses as well.

Further, the Food Justice Momentum Team at Mid-City Community Advocacy Network (CAN) works toward forming a just and sustainable food system (Food Justice Momentum Team).  Although Mid-City CAN and the food bank’s different project goals have stymied collaboration in the past, it is promising that there is a task force already informed about and working on food security in City Heights.  Past attempts at collaboration have set the groundwork for future dialogue.  City Heights’ Food Resource Guide lists 15 distribution sites (City Heights-Food Resource Guide)–a high concentration considering the community’s small 6.5 square-mile area (Mid City CAN, 2015).

Initially, we thought that distributing a client survey would be the best method to get data that will help improve users’ satisfaction.  But, after some coordinators at the distributions centers expressed concerns about over-surveying the clients (National University and City Heights project are simultaneously surveying), we decided it was in our and clients’ best interest to collaborate with site leaders to gain insight into the unique needs of clients served, as each distribution site operates in silo-style.  Our decision to work as broker between the San Diego Food Bank and Mid-City CAN is both an extension of our social work skills as well as a logical, if not necessary initiative to encourage cooperation between both large agencies and community members dedicated to food security in the neighborhood.

There are numerous strategies which can be employed to increase collaboration, a meaningful dialogue, and resident and service provider participation.  Feeding America’s learning collaborative with City Heights leaders can incorporate an educational focus with leadership at the Church of the Nazarene, Bridge of Hope, and St. Marks.   By framing each distribution site as a “client”–as a center with unique needs that cannot easily be generalized–we are in a position to better understand the diverse dynamics that affect client satisfaction.  A lack of collaboration on surveys causes over-surveying of clients, leading to redundancies in data and threatens internal and external validity.  Joining with the learning collaborative will give us opportunities to explore current strengths, assets, service utilization, needs, and ideas for future development.

The ubiquity of the San Diego Food Bank is a manifestation of food insecurity in the county.  Increases in the price of food have had a direct and adverse effect on the poor and are expected to push many more into absolute poverty.  This is particularly relevant to City Height’s large immigrant community, many of whom are at risk of economic insecurity (Bliesner & Bussell, 2013) The Rome Declaration and Plan of Action of 1996 stated that the “right to adequate food is realized when every man, woman and child alone or in community with others, has physical and economic access at all times to adequate food or means for its procurement.” It further defines “adequate food” as “the availability of food in quantity and quality sufficient to satisfy the dietary needs of individuals, free from adverse substances, and acceptable within a given culture” (The Right to Food).

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) (also known as CalFresh in California) offers nutrition assistance to eligible low-income individuals and families, as well as providing economic benefits to communities. SNAP is the largest nutrition assistance program administered by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), with a goal of alleviating hunger and malnutrition by increasing the food purchasing power for all households who participate in the program.  The electronic benefit transfer system (EBT), which is similar to a bank card, replaced the paper coupons previously used.  The City Heights Farmer’s Market was the first farmers market in San Diego to accept SNAP (City Heights Farmer’s Market). Every 5 years, the SNAP program is reauthorized by Congress as part of the Farm Bill.  The reauthorization establishes who is eligible for SNAP and addresses program access, and benefit levels.

As part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA, 2009), Congress provided a temporary increase in SNAP benefits. The increase to SNAP benefits by ARRA was to help low-income households afford enough food for their families during the recession.  The increase to ARRA benefits was structured to phase out incrementally; however, in 2010 Congress passed two bills that ended the increase to SNAP benefits. As a result, instead of a gradual phase-out, all SNAP participants had their benefits abruptly cut on November 1, 2013, when the ARRA benefit increase ended (U.S. Department of State, 2013). The reduction in benefits cut $39 billion from SNAP, and according to Feeding America, they estimated that the cut in benefits equated to approximately half the number of meals they distributed in a year (Feeding America, 2015). According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, nearly one-third of households on SNAP still have to visit a food pantry to keep themselves fed (USDA ERS, 2015).

The Agricultural Act of 2014, also known as the 2014 U.S. Farm Bill, formerly the “Federal Agriculture Reform and Risk Management Act of 2013”, authorizes nutrition and agriculture programs in the United States for the years of 2014-2018.  The bill passed in the United States House of Representatives on January 29, 2014, and the United States Senate on February 4, 2014.  The bill was signed into law on February 7, 2014. Some of the highlights of the nutrition section of the 2014 Farm Bill include:

  • Maintaining SNAP eligibility for low-income families.
  • Providing $200 million for job training and $100 million to increase fruit and vegetable purchases.
  • Providing $250 million in additional funding for The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP), which supports food banks and food pantries.
  • And authorizing $125 million for the Healthy Food Financing Initiative to make nutritious food more accessible (The Farm Bill).

There were macro, micro, and mezzo opportunities for community interventions to increase food security and thereby, and consequent client satisfaction in City Heights.  During the Vietnam War the United States government brought seventy-five thousand Vietnamese refugees to San Diego. Many of those refugees settled in City Heights.  The State Department did not invest the appropriate resources for capacity building.  Additionally, the City of San Diego and County did not have any policies or procedures for cultural competency, trauma informed services, and community integration operationalized.  Decades later, the county continues to struggle to strike a balance between agency autonomy and collaboration.  A full service partnership model with the Food Bank and other social services may have mitigated threats of dissatisfaction.

In April, we plan to attend the learning collaborative with the San Diego Food Bank and service providers in April.  We also plan to attend the Mid-City CAN Food Justice Momentum Team meeting on March 21.  We decided to survey 3 sites (Bridge of Hope, Church of the Nazarene, and St. Mark’s), in the hopes that by limiting our focus, we can take a thorough look at the issues affecting the selected site.   After realizing that our surveys internal and external validity could be compromised by multiple agencies surveying the same clients, we have decided to reach out to Shelly in order to rectify this issue and hopefully collaborate with the other agencies and survey together to diminish redundancies in data. We also plan on speaking with our professor to plan a better course of action to address the threats to validity and incorporate a more strengths based approach for not just our clients, but for also towards those that lead the distribution sites where we survey.  We hope that having leaders of each site delineate roles and expectations of food distribution will show an increase in client satisfaction.

Our work to date began with a meeting with Shelly Hahne, the services manager at the San Diego Food Bank.  She told us about the bank’s food distribution services, its recent revamping, and the current downturn in client satisfaction.  With her input as well as that of Kelcey Ellis, Programs Manager at Feeding America San Diego, we designed a client survey that would capture which elements of the distribution clients like and dislike, as well as opportunities to give suggestions about how a future model could look.

Our team has maintained an open and honest dialogue throughout this group project. Our project’s direction has developed and changed in accordance with the growing amount of stakeholders invested in understanding the needs of clients through alternative surveys, in addition to ours.

Additionally, we have participated and observed the use of the scanner i.d. computer system, participated and observed in food distribution, and engaged in survey implementation. We have talked to site leaders, observed client and service provider interaction, and engaged in meaningful dialogues with gatekeepers and clients.



Bliesner, J. & Bussell, M.R.  (2013).  The informal economy in City Heights.

Mid-City CAN.  (2015). Food justice.

Mid-City CAN.  (2015). Who we are.

San Diego Food Bank.  (n.d.).  City heights-food resource guide (handout).

San Diego Food Bank.  (n.d.).  City Heights project (handout).

City of San Diego, (2015)

City Heights, San Diego, CA – Lifestyle and Demographics – Realtor.com®. (2015)

San Diego’s Crawford High School Pilots Halal School Lunches. (2015, May 22). Retrieved November 15, 2015

CalFresh. (n.d.). Retrieved March 6, 2016, from http://www.sandiegocounty.gov/content/sdc/hhsa/programs/ssp/food_stamps.html

City Heights Farmers’ Market – LocalHarvest. (n.d.). Retrieved March 8, 2016,

Feeding America. (n.d.). Retrieved March 12, 2016

The Farm Bill. (n.d.). Retrieved March 8, 2016

THE RIGHT TO FOOD. (n.d.). Retrieved March 13, 2016

USDA ERS – Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) Data System. (n.d.) Retrieved March 13, 2016, from

U.S. Department of State Information Related to the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. (n.d.). Retrieved March 8, 2016, from

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