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Statesman Journal: Lawmakers hear from food banks on fighting hunger

September 18, 2013
Carol McAlice Currie

Potatoes, carrots, and onions. Add a smidgeon of thyme, a few of cups of water, some salt, pepper, cayenne and a little bit of beef, and a family has all the makings of a nutritious, but easy stick-to-your-ribs stew.

On Monday, officials with the Oregon Food Bank, Farmers Ending Hunger and others reminded lawmakers that one of their priorities is to put more fresh vegetables and protein into the hands of the hungry so they, too, can eat simply but well.

The groups, reporting to the Senate committee on Rural Communities & Economic Development during Oregon’s Legislative Days, told committee chairman Sen. Arnie Roblan and senate committee members that the challenges of fighting hunger in the state have remained “pretty much unchanged.”

Twenty regional food banks serve 945 community agencies, and for the past three years, according to the Oregon Food Bank, they have distributed 81 million pounds of food in Oregon, or about 1.1 million emergency food boxes.

The senators heard how the Oregon Food Bank and smaller regional food banks have pushed to create more farmers’ markets, and to have more farmers’ markets accept food stamps. The food banks also have helped expand the number of community gardens in the state, but suggested that lawmakers consider finding ways to help strengthen rural grocery stores, which are being challenged economically.

Rural grocers struggle to meet minimum purchasing requirements, which forces many of them who can’t get to the number, to drive to their nearest big-box retailer to buy comestibles and then try to resell them at a smaller profit. Many also face product-delivery issues, so they’re themselves driving more than 100 miles daily to try to keep their stock fresh. Most have difficulty keeping fresh produce stocked, the senators were told, because they either don’t have the proper refrigeration units, or can’t sell it by the turnaround dates and it goes to waste.

“These high operations costs and slim profit margins are turning many rural grocery stores into convenience stores,” said Spencer MastersonCQ, community resource developer for the Oregon Food Bank. “We have opportunities to turn corner stores into healthy corner stores if we can finds ways to provide funding for the infrastructure, create a statewide alliance for independent grocers and encourage everyone to shop at their local grocery store.”

The committee also heard about different food sources being tapped to help feed the state’s hungriest residents. Marlin Martin, food program director at the Clatsop Community Action Regional Food Bank, explained how his group is working with the Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife to take wild game and bi-catch, or unintentionally caught fish. Only a lack of volunteers recently prevented his group from taking an entire batch of salmon sitting on an ODFW dock.

John Burt, executive director of Farmers Ending Hunger, appealed to the committee to help the state’s farmers get more fresh food to the hungry in Oregon. He reported that his group’s food-stand project,  which made fresh produce available to low-income residents in a pilot program this year, served more than 13,000 people. He said it was gratifying that food that might otherwise go to waste was put in the hands of the hungry.

He also noted that farmers in the state who help supply food banks will be looking to lawmakers to introduce legislation similar to Senate Bill 430, which died last session. The bill, which was modeled after one that became law in Arizona, would have “subtracted” some costs related to crop donation. Oregon previously had a tax credit, Burt said, but it expired several years ago.

“Most of our farmers donate their crops because it’s the right thing to do,” Burt said. “”But for some, a tax credit or subtraction could really help offset the harvest costs. It would be a fair incentive, and we hope the Legislature/Revenue Committee will try again.”

Burt also encouraged lawmakers to remember that food banks need volunteers, and that “volunteer parties made up of legislators can make a difference.”

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