In the years since the first dot-com bubble burst, Silicon Valley has become emblematic of the intensifying wealth inequality that’s making life increasingly unaffordable for millions of working- and middle-class Americans.
And while the unprecedented wealth creation in the region has helped enrich hundreds of thousands of tech workers and entrepreneurs, virtually everybody else in the region – from college students to the cafeteria workers and janitors who service the headquarters of storied tech firms like Google and Facebook – has suffered from rising rents and a cost of living that’s far outstripped wage inflation.
Now, a study has found that more than one in four Silicon Valley residents is food insecure – meaning they go without at least one meal or rely on food pantries due to lack of financial resources, according to researchers at the Second Harvest food bank.
Using hundreds of community interviews and data modeling, a new study suggests that 26.8% of the population – almost 720,000 people – meet this ignominious designation. Furthermore, nearly a quarter are families with children.
“We call it the Silicon Valley paradox,” says Steve Brennan, the food bank’s marketing director. “As the economy gets better we seem to be serving more people.” Since the recession, Second Harvest has seen demand spike by 46%.
The Guardian interviewed local residents who qualify as food insecure for a story about the worsening wealth gap in one of the wealthiest regions in the US.
Karla Peralta is surrounded by food. As a line cook in Facebook’s cafeteria, she spends her days preparing free meals for the tech firm’s staff. She’s worked in kitchens for most of her 30 years in the US, building a life in Silicon Valley as a single mother raising two daughters.
But at home, food is a different story. The region’s soaring rents and high cost-of-living means that even with a full-time job, putting food on the table hasn’t been simple. Over the years she has struggled to afford groceries – at one point feeding her family of three with food stamps that amounted to $75 a week, about half what the government describes as a “thrifty” food budget. “I was thinking, when am I going to get through this?” she said.
In a region famed for its foodie culture, where the well-heeled can dine on gold-flecked steaks, $500 tasting menus and $29 loaves of bread, hunger is alarmingly widespread, according to a new study shared exclusively with the Guardian.
According to the Guardian, the food bank is literally at the center of the Silicon Valley boom – both literally and figuratively. It sits just half a mile from Cisco’s headquarters and counts Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg among its major donors. But the need it serves is exacerbated by this industry’s wealth; as high-paying tech firms move in, the cost of living rises for everyone else.
As we’ve pointed out, faced with some of the most expensive rental housing in the nation, some Bay Area residents are feeling priced out and are seeking low-cost alternatives like living in their cars, or commuting nearly two hours to work each way.
All of this is happening as the Nasdaq – which includes many of the tech behemoths like Facebook, Google and Apple that are based in the region – reached an all-time high above 7,000 on Monday.
Food insecurity often accompanies other poverty indicators, such as homelessness. San Jose, Silicon Valley’s largest city, had a homeless population of more than 4,000 people during a recent count.
For workers like Karla Peralta – the Facebook cafeteria worker who shared the story of her daily struggles with the Guardian – there’s a stark division between well-heeled salaried tech workers at Facebook, and others like herself who work under contract.
What’s worse, many workers like Peralta are finding themselves mired in an uncomfortable gray area: they make too much to qualify for government assistance, but not enough to get by.
These days Peralta earns too much to qualify for food stamps, but not enough not to worry. She pays $2,000 a month – or three-quarters of her paycheck – to rent the small apartment she shares with her youngest daughter. “Even just the two of us, it’s still a struggle.” So once a month, she picks up supplies at the food bank to supplement what she buys at the store.
She isn’t one to complain, but acknowledges the vast gulf between the needs of Facebook employees and contract workers such as herself. “The first thing they do [for Facebook employees] is buy you an iPhone and an Apple computer, and all these other benefits,” she laughs. “It’s like, wow."
Second Harvest is the only food bank serving Silicon Valley. It’s also one of the largest in the country. In any given month, it provides meals for 257,000 people. It served 66 million pounds of food last year. When the Guardian visited its cavernous, 75,000 square foot main warehouse space, boxes of produce stretched to the ceiling. Strip lights illuminated crates of cucumbers and pallets of sweet potatoes with a chilly glow. Volunteers in PayPal T-shirts packed cabbages and apples that arrived in boxes as big as paddling pools, while in the walk-in freezer turkeys waited to defrost.
To Silicon Valley’s wealthy tech workers, the struggles of the hundreds of thousands of working poor in the region are often invisible.
“Often we think of somebody visibly hungry, the traditional homeless person,” Brennan said. “But this study is putting light on the non-traditional homeless: people living in their car or a garage, working people who have to choose between rent and food, people without access to a kitchen."
He added, “you’re not thinking when you pick up your shirts from dry cleaning, or getting your landscaping done, or going to a restaurant, or getting your child cared for, ‘is that person hungry?’ It’s very easy to assume they are fine."
The cost of housing is one of the biggest contributor to inequality – and the main reason many workers in the region are forced to go hungry. In Santa Clara County, the median price of a family home has reached a new high of $1.125 million, while the supply of homes continues to shrink. A family of four earning less than $85,000 is now considered low income. Meanwhile, the median income in the US is less than $60,000.
These realities mean food insecurity cuts across lines of race, age and employment status.
Minority communities in the Bay Area have been hit the hardest.
The Latino community is “passing through a hard time”, says Vicky Avila-Medrano, a food connection specialist. She runs a program that sends current and former food bank users out into the community, which has been disproportionately affected by the cost-of-living crisis.
“Here in Silicon Valley, we have a big problem. This is a beautiful place to live for people in the tech industry, but we are not working in that industry."
Of course, the problems posed by rising rents aren’t unique to the San Francisco Bay Area. As we noted back in October, rental costs growing faster than disposable income for 22 consecutive months. In September, rent ate up more disposable income than at any prior time in history.
All of this underscores the hypocrisy of the ultra-liberal Bay Area. While well-heeled tech workers spurn anybody who disagrees with their narrow-minded worldview in the name of progress, many of these same workers drift through their daily routines largely ignorant of the dire circumstances of the people who handle their dry cleaning and prepare their food.
Google famously fired former engineer James Damore for publishing an open letter pointing out flaws in the company’s diversity hiring program.
Meanwhile, the more than 10,000 employees who work at the Googleplex in Mountain View, Calif. are some of the biggest contributors to wealth inequality in the region.
While we're sure the Bay Area's insistence on social equality in the workplace is well intentioned, progress won't feed the working poor.