The area's strong economy is producing jobs, but many of these don't pay enough to cover basic living costs.
That's a major finding of the 2006 Hunger Factors Assessment, a biennial survey of emergency food box recipients in Oregon and Clark County, Wash.
"People are hungry because they don't make enough to cover basic living costs," said Rachel Bristol, chief executive officer, Oregon Food Bank. "The high cost of housing, health care, child care and fuel make it difficult for low-income individuals and families to have enough to pay for food."
The Oregon Food Bank Network conducts the Hunger Factors Survey every two years to assess the factors that create the need for food assistance. This year, 121 food pantries distributed the survey to emergency food box recipients during a three-week period in April.
Oregon Food Bank analyzed the data from the 3,676 completed surveys, which represent a balanced sampling of households served throughout Oregon as well as Clark County.
Nearly a third (29 percent) of the recipients said they need help because their wages are too low. This is a major change from 2002, during the economic downturn, when 19 percent of recipients named low wages as a reason for needing help feeding their families.
The working poor:
• 47 percent of surveyed households had at least one adult who was working. That's up from 43 percent in 2004 and 37 percent in 1996.
• 30 percent of households had one or more members working full time. That's up from 26 percent in 2004 and 24 percent in 2000.
• 45 percent of families with children had at least one full-time worker.
• 78 percent of households reported incomes less than 100 percent of the federal poverty line.
• 33 percent of households reported incomes less than 50 percent of the federal poverty line.
• 38 percent cite higher wages as critical to improving their situation.
Oregon and Southwest Washington's job growth has been strong for the past three years, creating new job opportunities for area residents. But nearly two-thirds of the new jobs created since the end of the last economic boom pay less than $30,000 a year, according to the Oregon Center for Public Policy. Moreover, a smaller share of workers in Oregon has employers who pay something towards health insurance compared to just a few years ago.
Findings related to medical care:
• 53 percent of households delay medical care due to cost. That's up from 47 percent in 2002 and 41 percent in 1996.
• 67 percent of households delay dental care due to cost. That's up from 62 percent in 2004 and 51 percent in 2000.
• 38 percent of adults in surveyed households had no health insurance.
• 20 percent of children in surveyed households had no health insurance.
• 49 percent of households delay filling medical prescriptions due to cost.
• 58 percent report medical or hospital debts.
• 24 percent say that improved health could prevent another food crisis.
The advent of the Oregon Health Plan in 1989 dramatically reduced the number of emergency food box recipients without health care coverage. By 2002, more than 50 percent of households receiving an emergency food box had at least one member covered by the health plan.
However, due to revenue shortfalls, increased co-pays and expanded eligibility restrictions, in 2006 only 27 percent of households had at least one member covered by the plan. About 117,000 children in Oregon currently lack any type of medical insurance, according to the Office of Oregon Health Policy and Research.
The portion of food box recipients who cited high fuel and heating costs as the reason for needing help feeding their families also increased sharply – from 21 percent in 2000 to 31 percent this year.
Twenty-three percent of responding households cite the need for affordable housing as crucial to preventing future food crises.
Although employment hasn't provided an adequate income for many households, 50 percent of survey respondents said that work was their key to a better future.
Work barriers cited:
• 29 percent of households with members looking for work did not have a phone.
• 27 percent of households with members looking for work did not have a car.
• A major barrier for mothers entering the workforce is the high cost of child care. According to the OCPP, the annual cost of full-time care for a toddler in Oregon is now $4,000 more than tuition and fees for an undergraduate at the University of Oregon.
Who is hungry?
• 37 percent of those receiving emergency food were children 17 years and under. The current state population estimate for that age range is 24.7 percent.
• 22 percent of households with children report cutting or reducing the size of their child's meals. Of those, 35 percent do this almost every month.
• Two-parent households are still the largest group served.
• Most adult recipients are working, retired or disabled.
"In an average month, 72,000 children in Oregon and Southwest Washington eat meals from an emergency food box," Bristol said. "Children who are hungry have more trouble learning in school. Childhood hunger and malnutrition in the early years can result in irreversible health problems, such as hypertension, diabetes, kidney and heart disease, later in life. We are failing the most vulnerable in our society … our children."
Distribution of emergency food boxes remains relatively flat
During the 2005-06 fiscal year:
• An estimated 194,000 people each month ate meals from an emergency food box.
• Soup kitchens and shelters distributed 3.9 million meals.
• In addition, 80,000 people received food through other network programs.
The good news: For the first time in nine years, the number of emergency food boxes distributed to people who need food in Oregon and Clark County, Wash., did not increase substantially (less than 1 percent increase).
The Oregon Food Bank Network's 357 emergency food pantries distributed 755,000 emergency food boxes during fiscal year 2005-06 compared to 751,000 emergency food boxes in 2005. That is still double the number distributed in 1996-97 when welfare reform began.
"After nine straight years of often double-digit increases, this is, indeed, welcome news," Bristol said. "But it's still too soon to know if the number reflects a genuine decrease in need or the decrease in the amount of food available in the OFB Network. You may recall reading the numerous news stories last winter about pantries reducing distribution due to empty shelves."
The bad news: The amount of food available in the Oregon Food Bank Network for distribution to people in need decreased almost 5 percent — from 60.8 million pounds in 2004-05 to 57.9 million pounds in 2005-06. That's a decrease of almost 3 million pounds of food in one year.
"Our annual statistics paint a clear picture: Most of the decrease in food during the last fiscal year was due to a dramatic 26 percent decline — a drop of 2.3 million pounds of food – in U.S. Department of Agriculture product," Bristol said.
"This is a particularly significant loss because the food we receive from USDA is nutritious, pre-packaged, shelf-stable food," she added. "We expect USDA product to continue to decline. We're working hard to try to find other major sources of food to make up for the loss."
Of the 57.9 million pounds collected and distributed by the Oregon Food Bank Network, 66 percent came from food industry donations, 15 percent from food drives, 12 percent from USDA and 7 percent was purchased.
"Although we are proud of our success in helping families in Oregon and Clark County, Wash., we are disturbed that hundreds of thousands of people need emergency food in the first place," Bristol said. "We ask the community to renew their support in the fight against hunger in Oregon and Clark County, Wash. … because no one should be hungry."