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Brian Stimson of The Skanner News
Published: 24 November 2010

Sara Gourley isn't sure how many families they've had to turn away from free Thanksgiving Day boxes, and they're still getting calls from people who can't afford a turkey feast. The Portland Police Bureau's Sunshine Division is simply at capacity.

There is simply not enough to go around.

As unemployment rates and the overall recession stagnate, hunger is still a problem in Oregon, with hunger-relief agencies feeding more families than they report feeding at the beginning of the recession. A recent USDA report on food insecurity reinforces the depths to which economics play on people's stomachs.

Gourley, Sunshine Division program manager, says they've seen an increase of about 40 percent in the demand for food boxes.

"We're seeing about 55 families a day on average," she says.

Unlike many of the food distribution agencies who rely on the supplies from the Oregon Food Bank, the Sunshine Division relies on private donations. The Thanksgiving Day food boxes – filled with bread, a turkey, pie, potatoes and other fixings – were made possible by Zupan's market and a donation by Dave's Killer Bread.

There were about 14 percent of Oregonians who experience low or very low food security sometime during the years of 2008 and 2009 – that is, those households, at times, "were uncertain of having, or unable to acquire, enough food to meet the needs of all their members because they had insufficient money or other resources for food."

Those numbers remained steady through 2009, although they represented a dramatic rise from before the recession began in 2007. There are some local indications that the problem is getting worse.

Over at the Oregon Food Bank, Jean Kempe-Ware says most of their clients qualify as being food insecure. The bank distributed about 917,000 food boxes last year, a 17 percent increase from 2007 and 2008. Kempe-Ware says distribution has reached "unprecedented levels."

"We've been blessed by some very generous people," she told The Skanner News. "Everyone knows someone that is suffering. People get it."

For many of the people who receive emergency food boxes last year from the Oregon Food Bank, only 20 percent have a full-time worker in the household, a number that has gone down by 10 percent since 2008.

The average family receives an emergency food box four times a year, and most recipients – but not all -- are also SNAP (food stamp) recipients, even though most qualify.

Kempe-Ware lays praise on increases in SNAP and emergency food resources in the stimulus bill for not allowing the hunger issue to get much worse. But the fact remains, the people who are considered "food insecure" on the USDA's study are the same people seeking help from the state and other agencies.

The Oregon Center for Public Policy also released a report fingering the SNAP program for the stagnation of hunger rates. While rate of food insecurity should have continued growing along with unemployment and decreased income, it didn't. The rate of SNAP recipients, however, did.

"Earlier in this decade, in response to survey data showing Oregon with hunger rates among the highest in the nation, the state broadened eligibility requirements for food stamp benefits," according to the OCPP. "That change has made it less likely that obtaining a low-wage job will exclude someone from receiving food stamps."

It's also helped support local economies.

"In addition to allowing struggling families to keep food on the table, SNAP injects significant amounts of money into Oregon's economy," according to the report. "The federal government pays for all of the benefits, while Oregon and the federal government split the administrative costs. Since the beginning of the recession, SNAP has brought more than $2.4 billion into Oregon's economy. These funds are provided to Oregonians trying to make ends meet and are typically spent quickly within the local economy."

A New Model

While delivering their normal load of organic produce and other food items in Portland's inner core, the cargo tricycle delivery company B-Line recognized an enormous opportunity to help alleviate hunger. Grocery stores and restaurants throw away hundreds of pounds of useable food each day.

Whether it's because a sell-by date is up or produce is on its way out, perishable food was being wasted and B-Line was in a position to deliver it to those that could use it. The Oregon Food Bank typically can't redistribute perishable food due to the small amounts yielded and the time it can take to deliver to their partners.

But B-Line, with their fleet of cargo trikes already making trips across town, had plenty of opportunity to pick up food on their normal routes and drop it off at Sisters of the Road, Blanchet House and others says Carolyn Holland, B-Line's marketing director. The B-Shares pilot project kicked off in July and is now officially in action – with roughly 300 to 600 pounds of food delivered to hunger alleviating organizations daily.

"We're just doing what we do best," Holland said.

There are others who follow the same model. Urban Gleaners, a volunteer-run organization, is one such outfit that picks up food from farmer's markets, restaurants and grocery stores and delivers them to hunger relief agencies.

Legislative Help

According to Jeff Kleen, a public policy advocate for the Oregon Food Bank, hope for the passage of legislation to extend popular nutrition programs such as WIC, school lunches and breakfast is running out. 

Kleen, who visited with Oregon's congressional delegation this month, says the House has all but given up crafting their own piece of nutrition legislation that would have doubled the $4 billion in increases outlined in the Senate bill.

"It (S 3307) certainly falls short," he said.

Although the bill – if it passes this session – will increase availability of family nutrition programs, there are cuts coming up to the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act that will decrease the availability of SNAP (food stamp) benefits. He said it is imperative that congress pass the bill before the end of the session, as he doesn't see it as a priority for a congress that won on a platform of less government and spending.









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