If the economy has been booming as the President and some economists maintain, the Oregon Food Bank somehow has missed out. With its shelves nearly barren, the food bank is handing out food almost as soon as it receives it. Not only are food reserves nearly non-existent, the frozen food inventory — historically the food bank's "safety net" – has been depleted.
How has this happened? Donations are down by 1.1 million pounds of food from last year. salvaged product donations, such as dented cans, have fallen. And most importantly, the U.S. Department of Agriculture is donating 52 percent less food than in past years. The recent Cans Food Festival collected 83,000 pounds of food, but Rachel Bristol, Oregon Food Bank's CEO, said that food lasted just about a day.
"The Farm Bill holds out the best hope for increasing supply," she said. Reauthorized every five years by Congress, the Farm Bill could increase the amount of food donated by the USDA from 5 million pounds a year to 8 million pounds. A much needed boost, she says.
Much of the emergency food the food bank receives is from the USDA, provided through the nutrition title of the national Farm Bill, which passed the House this year but is currently being debated in the Senate. Meanwhile the Oregon's food shortage has reached critical levels.
"Oregon Food Bank's warehouse shelves are as empty as I've ever seen them," Bristol said. "The entire statewide network of regional food banks and the 900 local agencies we serve throughout Oregon and southwest Washington are feeling the impact.
"In an average month, almost 200,000 people, including more than 70,000 children, eat meals from emergency food boxes in our service area," Bristol said. The amount of food delivered to local agencies is down from about 700,000 pounds to 500,000 pounds. And it's not because of dwindling demand, Bristol says. Demand is up, but people are getting less food in an emergency food box.
Sen. Ron Wyden, who has been pushing to pass the Farm Bill in the U.S. Senate, toured the food bank's nearly empty warehouse on Oct. 20.
"Hungry people are on a tightrope as they try to feed their families," Wyden told food bank volunteers. "I encourage all Oregonians to donate food and funds now to support the OFB statewide network. I will do my part to make government a better partner in the fight against hunger."
But in case Congress doesn't deliver, Bristol says the food bank is working on several partnerships that could increase the amount of food available. Food Bank officials are working with farmers in the state to donate a set amount of food. Wheat donations are making it possible to create a low-cost baking mix. And a program is working on collecting more meat and dairy on the sell-by date to freeze and distribute.
But if a recession were to hit, Bristol is unsure Oregon families would get the food they need. Before the 2001 recession, the food bank had just moved into its new facility, the shelves were stocked with food and donations were high. Seven years later the number of children who don't always get a meal is similar – about one in five. What's new is that the resources to take care of them are missing.