Housing Costs Play Role in Urban Hunger In Oakland, Calif., hunger shows up where it's least expected: in upscale Oakland Hills, where Brian Donaldson and his wife, Tina, share an apartment that some would call luxurious. But at 52, Donaldson is jobless and his skills are outdated.
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Housing Costs Play Role in Urban Hunger

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Housing Costs Play Role in Urban Hunger

Housing Costs Play Role in Urban Hunger

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

This week, we've been bringing you stories of hunger in America. We've heard about a family in rural Smith County, Virginia, and one in suburban Detroit. In these stories, we've heard how joblessness and high medical costs can contribute to the financial woes of the 38 million people the government describes as `food insecure.' Well, today, we wrap up our series of reports. In a little bit we'll talk about some of the health effects of hunger in the US, but first, we'll hear about a couple in an urban setting. And as NPR's Elaine Korry reports from Oakland, California, the high cost of housing in urban areas can also contribute to hunger in America.

ELAINE KORRY reporting:

In Oakland, you can find hunger in all the usual places: government housing projects and rundown boarding homes. But it also shows up where you'd least expect it, in the upscale Oakland Hills. That's where Brian Donaldson and his wife, Tina, share an apartment that some would call luxurious. It's even equipped with a private gym.

Mr. BRIAN DONALDSON: Sometimes when I'm feeling energetic, I'll stand on my treadmill. And then when I'm really feel energetic, I'll try to lift some weights.

KORRY: But these days, Brian Donaldson rarely is up to it. He's ill with chronic digestion problems, and it shows in his sunken eyes and gaunt, pale cheeks. He's bald and down to a hundred pounds. Yet under his gray sweatshirt...

(Soundbite of patting)

KORRY: ...his belly is bloated and hard, another symptom of his illness.

Mr. DONALDSON: It's my immune system, thinks it's being invaded by bacteria and viruses and all that stuff, and so it's just immediately creating antibodies to go fight all this bacteria.

KORRY: Donaldson has been in and out of hospitals for years. He takes medication and washes down dozens of vitamins each day, but he still has severe stomach cramps and constant diarrhea. He's disabled, a far cry from his life a few years ago.

Donaldson was born in Southern California, but he lived in Scotland as a boy. He returned to California for college, and for most of his adult life, he worked in Silicon Valley as a software engineer. He could afford the rent in this gated apartment complex. He shows me the spare bedroom, which he converted into an office. Black metal shelves are crammed with computer equipment.

Mr. DONALDSON: This is my baby, the best computer system in the world, the HP 3000. It was somewhere around 1999 when Hewlett-Packard decided to phase out this here computer system. That was, really, the beginning of my troubles.

KORRY: Donaldson was laid off, collateral damage in the dot-com bust. He's 52, his health is poor and his skills are outdated. Who's going to hire him now? His savings soon vanished, and without medical insurance, Donaldson has racked up huge doctor bills. Yet he doesn't even qualify for food stamps. His monthly disability check--about $1,650--puts him over the income limit. The biggest problem? Housing. Eighty percent of his check goes to keeping a roof over his head.

Mr. DONALDSON: We're paying $1,320 a month to rent this place.

KORRY: Then there are utilities. Gas and electric run about $150 per month.

Mr. DONALDSON: Plus, we got a water bill. It doesn't leave a lot of money to last a whole month.

KORRY: According to the real estate agency Bay Rentals, a dirt-cheap apartment in Oakland runs at least a thousand dollars, and a family of four needs nearly $70,000 annually to live comfortably. But according to Census data, the median income is only $41,000. Donaldson would gladly move out of the city to someplace cheaper, if only he could.

Mr. DONALDSON: Move where? Who's going to rent me an apartment? I've been unemployed for over two years. My credit report looks like a news report from Baghdad. Nobody will rent to me.

KORRY: So Brian and Tina Donaldson are stuck. His monthly check doesn't stretch far enough for groceries. He can't eat at a soup kitchen because of his health problems. So Donaldson had to find a novel solution to keep food on the table, and he has.

(Soundbite of horn; traffic noise; vehicle backing up)

KORRY: Donaldson volunteers at a community food bank. It's a giant warehouse where forklifts move pallets of cereal, dry milk, canned fruits and vegetable, the stock and trade of food pantries such as the St. Vince de Paul Society. Donaldson spends a few days per week here packing up boxes with a week's worth of staples.

(Soundbite of cans being put in box)

Mr. DONALDSON: So we got pinto beans, we got can of mixed fruit, corn, tuna, a can of tuna.

KORRY: Because of his illness, Donaldson follows a strict gluten-free diet; that means no bread or pasta, but also no canned soup, the staple of hungry people everywhere, no bottled salad dressing or packaged rice, no ice cream, either.

Mr. DONALDSON: There's a lot of hidden glutens in food, and you have to become very educated. And I've discovered these things the hard way.

KORRY: Since Donaldson can't eat at a food pantry, he's worked out an exchange. He volunteers his labor and gets to handpick a weekly supply of rations from the food bank.

Mr. DONALDSON: Well, we got cans of cranberry sauce. I actually like this stuff. This is good. Carrots, green beans--that's pretty much about it. New can of tomatoes.

(Soundbite of water in kitchen sink)

KORRY: In the kitchen, Donaldson's wife Tina is brewing her special herb tea. A young woman with high cheekbones and straight black hair, she's the picture of health. She met her future husband on the Internet and then emigrated to the US from Kazakhstan. When they married nearly three years ago, the future looked good. Within a month, Brian Donaldson lost his job and things went downhill from there, but she tries to keep their spirits high.

Mrs. TINA DONALDSON: We can't predict our future. Things didn't work out the way I expected, actually, but it's happened, and so we should move on, move on to be enthusiastic, never be upset and survive.

KORRY: Tina Donaldson recently lost her job in a microchip assembly plant, so she's taking English courses, hoping one day to find a better job.

Mrs. DONALDSON: I'd like actually medical fields. I'm very concerned about food, what I'm eating and I want to help people, sick people, and I would like to work in any hospitals, to be a nurse.

KORRY: Before she became unemployed, Tina Donaldson made sure the couple ate well; natural foods and organic produce. They avoided the sugary, high-fat foods that cause obesity or diabetes. Now they have to settle for what they can get. Her meager unemployment benefits are about to run out, which means even less money to live on. But ironically, that may be just the kind of setback that qualifies the Donaldsons for food stamps. Elaine Korry, NPR News, Oakland.

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