Many UC workers struggle to feed themselves and their families, study shows

Seven in 10 University of California workers in clerical, administrative and support services struggle to put adequate food on the table, according to a new Occidental College study.

The study, released Monday, found that 45% of 2,890 employees surveyed throughout the 10-campus UC system went hungry at times. An additional 25% had to reduce the quality of their diet.

The problems persisted even though most of those surveyed were full-time employees with college degrees and average earnings of $22 an hour.

Peter Dreier, an Occidental professor of politics who conducted the study with two colleagues and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters Local 2010, said the results were startling.

“This is a systemwide problem; it exists on every campus,” Dreier said. “This is not a handful of people who happen to be down on their luck. They need a living wage so they can afford to feed their families.”

UC spokeswoman Dianne Klein said she could not comment on the study because she had not yet seen it and could not assess its methodology. She added that UC is currently in contract talks with the Teamsters and that “issues such as higher wages should be negotiated at the bargaining table.”

The food problems among UC workers were even higher than those found among students in a separate university study in June.The survey of nearly 9,000 UC students found that 42% did not have a consistent source of high-quality, nutritious food.

UC President Janet Napolitano, in conjunction with the student survey’s release, announced a $3.3-million effort to expand the fight against campus malnutrition. Each campus was to receive $151,000, adding to the $75,000 each received last year to build what officials said would be the nation’s most comprehensive, systematic plan to tackle the problem. 

Campus projects include expanding food pantries, emergency funding, budget cooking lessons and donations of excess dollars on student meal plans.

Dreier said California’s high housing costs make it difficult for workers to feed themselves and their families adequately. A 2013 California Budget Project study found that single-parent families with two children needed $74,000 annually, or nearly a $36-an-hour wage, just to make ends meet. A two-parent household with two children needed about $61,000, while a single adult needed about $33,000. 

Joseph Meyer, a 31-year-old administrative assistant at UC Berkeley, earns nearly $20 an hour but said he skips breakfast and sometimes additional meals to have enough money for his asthma medications. His $1,150 monthly rent eats up more than half of his $2,100 monthly take-home pay.

When the money is close to running out, he said, it becomes “Top Ramen week.”

Catherine Cobb made just under $25,000 annually as a housing coordinator and medical administrative assistant at UC Irvine from 2001 to 2014. That wasn’t enough to feed her and her son, so she would furtively take food from university events. A friend noticed her struggles and began buying her lunch.

“I didn’t want to talk about it because I was ashamed,” Cobb said. “Who wants to tell people they can’t make it?”

The study by Occidental College’s Urban and Environmental Policy Institute also found:

-- About 9 in 10 single-parent households reported food insecurity.

-- Food insecurity rates were higher among women (71.3%) than men (65.8%).

-- About 8 of 10 African Americans and Latinos, and 6 of 10 whites and Asians struggled with food insecurity.

-- Nearly 70% had difficulty concentrating on work at times because of hunger.

-- About 80% had to choose between buying food and paying rent or utilities.

teresa.watanabe@latimes.com

Twitter: @TeresaWatanabe

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