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What prevents low-income, food insecure individuals from accessing emergency food services in Napa County?

This study aimed to answer that question, with the goal of helping people access emergency food services to improve food security in Napa County. This study was guided by public health research practices (qualitative and quantitative) and Theory U, a human-centered design framework.  

Click the link below to learn more about our study participants.

We held convenings with stakeholders, community members, and decision-makers to participate in the planning and design of the study. Through the convenings, we sought to understand the context of the emergency food system in Napa County, identify priority populations and research questions for the study, and to make meaning of the data we were collecting. We identified 5 priority populations to include in the study: older adults, families with youth, residents of low-income neighborhoods, Latino/Undocumented/Monolingual low-wage workforce, and adults experiencing homelessness

To understand what prevents people from accessing emergency food services in Napa County, we worked with community partners and programs to collect surveys in English and Spanish from 351 users and eligible non-users of the emergency food provision system. To better understand potential barriers and solutions, focus groups were conducted in English and Spanish. One focus group was held with each of the following priority populations: adults experiencing homelessness (n=9), low-income older adults (n=10), and low-income Spanish-speaking adults (n=12).  

This website was created to share the findings of the study, along with other important indicators related to food security, food access, and related health and socioeconomic factors.

Almost three quarters of all survey respondents indicated they were at risk for food insecurity (73%). Not all survey respondents were currently using the emergency food system in Napa County; these survey respondents were considered 'non-users'. Over half of non-users (59%) indicated they were at risk for food insecurity. 

At risk for food insecurity was measured using a validated 2-item questionnaire adapted from the USDA’s Food Security Module. Individuals were classified as at-risk if they responded “Sometimes true” or “Often true” to one or both of the following statements about their household:

1. Within the past 12 months, we worried whether our food would run out before we got money to buy more.

2. Within the past 12 months, the food we bought just didn't last and we didn't have money to get more. 

Among survey respondents, risk for food insecurity was compared among individuals experiencing homelessness, Hispanic/Latino and/or Spanish-speaking respondents, and older adults (>65 years of age). Risk for food insecurity was highest among individuals experiencing homelessness (93%).

When asked what would help survey respondents be able to eat what they want, the most common responses included more money and improvements to the food offered at food assistance programs. Other common responses were access to employment, ability to participate in CalFresh, and increased access to affordable foods. Many respondents indicated that they are already able to eat what they want. 

What would help you or your household be able to eat what you want?

“A higher income. I have an income of $930/month - way below the poverty level (for California) and as of May 1, 2018 my rent will increase by $100! So I'm worried.”

“Tener mas dinero para comprar mejor comida o fruta y berduras.”

Have more money to buy better food or fruit and vegetables.

“Dieran mas de productos saludables, no muchas latas.”

Give more healthy products, not many cans.

“Los precios si fueran mas baratos. Mi esposo es el unico que trabaja. Yo no puedo. No tengo papeles.”

The prices if they were cheaper. My husband is the only one who works. I cannot. I do not have papers.

“Guide maps for places to go or having a kitchen or ways to cook. Need storage, cant even store food I get! We need a way to wash our clothes.”

“Fortunately, I work and my husband too. So I feel I am able to eat what I want.”

Common food programs that survey respondents attended included the food bank and food pantries (26%) and Free Fruits and Vegetables programs (22%), such as OLE Health (22%). Common meal programs that participants attended included The Table (27%), Salvation Army (27%), and free or reduced-price meals in schools (22%). One quarter of respondents indicated they receive CalFresh (25%) and 17% indicated they receive WIC. 

Four out of five respondents reported that they or someone in their household participated in at least one emergency food system program in Napa County. About a fifth said they did not participate in any of the programs (21%) and were classified as non-users of the emergency food provision system. Of note, 15% of survey respondents indicated that they participate in 5 or more of the food assistance programs listed.

The total number of programs survey respondents participated in varied according to food security status. Of note, 19% of individuals who identified as at risk for food insecurity reported participating in 5 or more emergency food system programs, compared to only 5% of individuals who identified as not at risk.

Survey respondents who were currently experiencing homelessness commonly attended  The Table (75%), Salvation Army (72%), and the Friday Free Market at Ole Health (42%). Among Hispanic/Latino and/or Spanish-speaking respondents, the most commonly attended programs included free or reduced-price meals at school (38%), WIC (29%), and Free Fruits and Vegetables (22%). Among survey respondents who were >65 years of age, the most commonly attended programs included the Food Bank and Food Pantries (25%), Senior Brown Bag Program (21%), and Meals on Wheels (21%).

The number of programs respondents reporting participating in varied somewhat by priority population group. For example, the percentage of survey respondents that attend 5 or more food assistance programs was 22% among individuals experiencing homelessness but only 3% among older adults (>65 years of age). Of note, program utilization results are reflective of the study sample and are not generalizable these population groups.

What do you like about these programs?

"Que ayudan a que mi familia tenga comida saludable.”

They help my family have healthy food.

"Man, save my life when starved. Wish I could get three free meals a day. Weekend are very tough and hard to survive and wish programs happen there."

“Son cercanos a donde vivo y dan alimentos en la vecindad.”

They are close to where I live and give food in the neighborhood.

“La verdura que nos dan es gratis y fresca.”

The vegetables they give us are free and fresh.

“Me gusta que nos ayude con parte del costo de la comida para mi hijo en la escuela. Porque gracias a la ayuda podemos estar mejor.”

I like that they help us with part of the cost of the food for my son in school. Because thanks to the help we can be better.

“The people are nice. They welcome you with a smile.”

“The food bank allows me to be able to pay bills and not worry about finding money for food.”

“Me gusta porque le ayuda a la gente.”

I like it because they help people.

Participants were asked what they liked about the food assistance programs they attend. Most of the responses were about the food the program provides. Most commonly, survey respondents shared that they appreciated the quality of food and the provision of healthy food and fresh fruits and vegetables. Some survey respondents also shared their appreciation that the food was free, they could enjoy a prepared meal, they received variety, the quantity provided was sufficient, and that they had the ability to select the food they received.

Other aspects of the programs that survey respondents commented on included convenience and the people (staff or volunteers) or services provided. Survey respondents also shared that they have a need for the services provided for the program(s), and/or that the program(s) help their family, save them money, and help other community members that are in need. 

Respondents were asked why they or members of their household did NOT participate in the program(s) that they had not selected. The most frequently cited reason for non-participation was lack of awareness of the program (49%). Other commonly cited reasons included not qualifying for the program, the time or day of the program, and not feeling a need to participate in the services offered.

Why do you or your household NOT participate in these programs?

“Things are not set up for a working parent! I have a job & 4 kids. I don't have time to wait for hours for services.”

“Por qué el lugar es muy retirado para mí y no se las fechas.”

Because the place is very far for me and I don't know the dates.

“No sé en donde se encuentren y distancia también. No tengo carro. Dependo de otras personas que me den raite.”

I do not know where they are and also distance. I have no car. I depend on other people to give me a ride.

“I am completely homeless. Have nowhere to store food.”

“Other people need help more.”

“They are not advertised so people don't know about them.”

“No sé dónde están localizados o como aplicar.”

I don't know where they are located or how to apply.

“I was denied Cal Fresh because I am not working 20 hours per week (because I am in school over full time - 22.5 credits/semester).”

“Not needed- I don't overuse and take advantage. It takes from others in need.”

To gain a deeper understanding of the barriers Napa County residents experience that prevent them from accessing food assistance, participants were shown a list of possible barriers that were identified by the Food Study Survey respondents. After adding to the list, participants engaged in a voting process to identify the top 3 barriers for each focus group. Listed below are the top 3 barriers for each focus group. 


Adults Experiencing Homelessness


Using the Food


Older Adults


Using the Food


Spanish Speaking Adults

Dates and Times of Programs

Income Limits to Qualify for Programs

Immigration Status

*Immigration Status and Qualification Levels (Income) were additional barriers brought up within the Spanish Speaking Focus Group that were prioritized among the top 3 barriers for their community. 

Created by Renatta Algalarrondo from Crowley and Co

“I was really uncomfortable, but over time I realized that we’re all the same, we’re all people.”

“It would help if there was a little more interaction…but if people could be more comfortable with us, it seems like some like to interact and some are like…they’re almost afraid to talk to you.”

“When the tourists go by they’re afraid and they look at you like you’re going to mug them or something…They cross the streets.”

Created by Renatta Algalarrondo from Crowley and Co

“They don’t have any specialties like for diabetics or for people that are having problems with food.”

“One thing is that what they put in the box doesn’t necessarily go together to make a meal…you keep stocking up on stuff because you don’t get the right combination to make a meal. Like you get spaghetti sauce but no spaghetti.”

“If they had more frequent distributions you could take smaller quantities…so right now they only have monthly distributions but if it was weekly you could store them.”

“I have a car but towards the end of the month I have no gas…this month I’m really worried about how much gas I’m going to have, but you’d think we’ll it’s not that much, well empty is empty.”

“From where I live I would have to use a No. 6 Bus, transfer to an intervening bus, to use a No. 2 Bus that would take me to the Salvation Army. So I am restricted by which programs I can access where I would have to use two buses…I will be limited to what I can physically bring back on the bus. Unless I have made prior arrangements, I will be able to bring 1 bag of groceries back and depending on the weather, I would also be restricted on whether something were perishable and would not safely be able to get it home. So that is to me a very systemic problem and also a complex problem.”

Created by Renatta Algalarrondo from Crowley and Co

“[El programa] abre a las 2:00 de la tarde. Pero como llegan a hacer línea, en una hora no es suficiente. A las 3:00 salen los niños de la escuela y por eso mucha gente no va. El trafico a esa hora y tiene uno que ir por los niños.”

[The program] opens at 2:00pm. But when you arrive, you have to stand in a long line; one-hour is not sufficient. At 3:00pm kids are out of school and that is why many people do not go. Traffic at that time and you have to pick up the kids.

“Muchos programas también se basan a los ingresos. Pero ellos no miran en los gastos que tiene uno a partir de los ingresos. Las rentas ahorita son muy caras y no miran esa parte.”

Many programs base it on income. They do not see the expenses we have, they only see the total gross income. Rents are so expensive now and they do not see that.

“Yo trabajaba y aplique para recibir asistencia monetaria, mi hija estaba chiquita y yo no recibía child support. Recibí como tres meses $500 al mes. Cuando ya comenzó mas bueno el trabajo toco al mes llevar yo mis pruebas y me cobraron lo que había recibido. Entonces que quiere el gobierno, ¿que se esté uno muriendo de hambre para poder calificar?”

I applied to receive financial assistance, my daughter was small, and I received no child support. I received about $500 for three months. When work started getting better I went back and showed my paperwork and was charged everything that I had received. What does the government want, that we be dying of hunger in order to qualify?

“Es muy difícil progresar, por que te atienes de una ayuda, pero también uno quiere trabajar y progresar. ¿Pero como vas a progresar si te quitan la ayuda de inmediato? No deberían quitar la ayuda hasta que uno este mas estable. No nomas porque te pasaste una semana.”

It is very difficult to progress because you need the help you are receiving but we also want to work and progress. But how can you progress if help is taken away immediately? Assistance should not be taken away until one is more stable. Not because you went over one week.

The Napa County Emergency Food System Study was funded by: