While policymakers in Washington, D.C. argue over the size of cuts to emergency food assistance, a new survey from the Oregon Food Bank says most families getting help are still going hungry. Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits –formerly called food stamps -- don't even last the entire month, for most families.
"It's incumbent upon every Oregonian, every member of Clark County, every American citizen to stand up and say no, we will not stand for people to be hungry, for our kids to be hungry," says Janeen Wadsworth, interim CEO of the Oregon Food Bank. "Our legislators, our policymakers, our leaders need to stand for those people as well."
This week, City Commissioner Dan Saltzman announced plans to make sure Portland's hungry children and teens are getting fed.
"The Portland Children's Levy will be asking voters to do more," Saltzman said at Wednesday's Portland City Council meeting. "We've got to do more to get food into the hands of hungry children."
That's not news to anyone working with youth or families, as The Skanner News reported in July after hearing from youth workers and teens at PAL's Eastside Youth Center. About 34 percent of emergency food box meals go to children under 17.
The Oregon Food Bank released a report on hunger this week. "A Profile of Hunger and Poverty in Oregon: 2012 Oregon Hunger Factors Assessment," surveyed 4,599 emergency food recipients at 162 emergency food pantries throughout Oregon and Clark County, Washington.
The findings suggest that many people have been hit hard by the "perfect storm" of inadequate SNAP benefits, long-term unemployment, persistent underemployment and the high cost of food, gas, utilities and rent.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, poverty in Oregon increased from 15.8 percent in 2010 to 17.5
percent in 2011. And 61 percent of the people in the Food Bank survey reported a drop in monthly income during the past two years.
Communities of color had disproportionately worse levels of poverty than non-Hispanic whites. According to the American Community Survey, nearly one in three African-Americans, Native Americans and Latinos were living below the poverty line, compared to one in seven non-Hispanic whites.
Almost 809,000 Oregonians were receiving SNAP as of Sep. 2012, an 86 percent increase since 2007, according to the report.
The findings reveal, "The average benefit was $129 per person per month or about $1.44 per meal. The USDA estimates that a low-cost, nutritionally adequate diet of home-cooked meals would cost about $2.60 per meal for an adult male and $2.26 per meal for an adult woman."
Of those surveyed:
9 percent said their benefits lasted all month
35 percent said their benefits lasted three weeks
31 percent said their SNAP benefits lasted two weeks, and
25 percent said their SNAP benefits lasted for fewer than 14 days.
In addition to inadequate SNAP benefits, the employment picture has been a huge contributing factor to hunger in Oregon.
"We've seen a lot more families with children come," says Captain Dwayne Patterson of the Salvation Army's Moore Street Corps and Community Center. "They're working families. It's hard to get by when you have one person with a job in the household. And sometimes that job is part-time."
Captain Dwayne Patterson
According to the survey, the living wage for a single adult in Oregon in 2010 was $15.20 per hour. However, of all the job openings in 2010, 52 percent paid less than that. Of the job openings that paid $15.20 per hour or more, each one had 14 job seekers, on average.
Asked why they needed extra help, 18 percent said their wages were too low. More than two in every 10 recipient households had at least one family member working part-time. And at least one family member was working full time in more than one-quarter of the households surveyed.
Simply covering basic necessities further stretched families' budgets, according to the report.
"Because hunger is an income issue, it's very sensitive to the ongoing recession we have," says Wadsworth. "When people tap out their savings and their resources, and in many cases have lost their homes, they don't bounce back very quickly."
Nearly half of the respondents said they were seeking help because of the high cost of food. High gas prices have become increasingly burdensome to poor families. In 2000, just 21 percent of respondents said they were a reason for needing food help. That jumped to 29 percent in 2010 and again to 40 percent this year.
More people also said high heating costs are a problem: 35 percent in 2012, up from 30 percent in 2010.
Patterson says the Salvation Army has had to make a number of changes to address the growing numbers of hungry families. First up is a new feeding program for families with kids that will run Tuesday through Friday. The aim is to give families one more meal they won't have to use SNAP for. The Salvation Army usually runs a food program in the summertime, and on a limited basis during the school year. From now on it will be a regular event.
Also, the Salvation Army has switched to a shopping style to distribute food. Before, families would receive emergency food boxes. Now, they can individually choose the food that's right for them, says Patterson.
Wadsworth said the Oregon Food Bank distributed over a million food boxes last year.
"That's a sobering statistic that should make us all pause," she says.
Unfortunately, Wadsworth says, the solutions being proposed in Washington, D.C. will make the situation worse.
The Oregon Food Bank did an analysis of the $4.5 billion in cuts to SNAP over 10 years approved in the Senate and the $16 billion over 10 years approved in the House of Representatives. They found that if the House and Senate met around the middle and cut $10 billion, between nine and ten million meals would be lost in Oregon per year.
"That's a lot of folks going without food," says Wadsworth. "That's a lot of folks that can't feed their kids."
For more information on the Hunger Factors Assessment , go to the Oregon Food Bank's website.