John Kitzhaber doesn’t usually appear with a couple of cabbage heads.
At least, not since the Legislature adjourned.
But at an event last week, the governor was accompanied by cabbages, strawberries and what looked like supersized turnips, not to mention legislators. The moment underlined the supreme irony of Oregon, a place of teeming fertility and persistent hunger.
And a place that works to do something about it.
Last Thursday, Kitzhaber was at the Oregon Food Bank’s warehouse headquarters in northeast Portland to sign a bill providing a tax credit to farmers for donating crops to hunger programs. A similar program was in place for decades before lapsing in 2011, mostly because the Legislature just lost track of it – the way we now lose track of tons of produce that won’t be sold but could still feed people.
“What this will do is hopefully give farmers that little bitty incentive to donate more to food banks,” explained Sen. Chuck Thomsen, R-Hood River, a co-sponsor of the bill and a pear grower himself. “We’re known for a lot of things, but don’t want to be known as the hungriest state in the union.”
So Kitzhaber went up to the OFB warehouse, amid the signs reading “Banana Boxes,” “Bread Trays,” “Large Milk Crates” and “Small Milk Crates,” to sign a bill costing the state a few hundred thousand dollars, a bill whose other co-sponsor, Sen. Ginny Burdick, D-Portland, called “a really small act, considering all the good it’s going to do.”
The Oregon Food Bank now helps send out a million emergency food boxes a year – a number simultaneously awesome and appalling – but Thursday was about more than filling the boxes.
“It’s not just calories. It’s the quality of the food,” said Kitzhaber after completing his penwork. “In a state with the bounty of Oregon, there’s no reason people shouldn’t have high-quality food.”
A fresh pear or cabbage, of course, is high-quality food; a pile of freeze-dried ramen, not so much. Working to increase crop contributions is key to the food bank’s efforts to upgrade those boxes.
“You’re just starting to build the puzzle,” said OFB Executive Director Susannah Morgan. “This is priority number one of what we’re looking to tackle.”
She quotes Dr. Kent Thornburg of Oregon Health & Science University, who argues, “Eating little is not as bad as eating poorly.” That’s the recipe for achieving a crisis in both hunger and obesity.
In a state still – still! – trying to get its health care system together, there is reason to think outside the food box. “There is a growing awareness,” noted Kitzhaber, “of the importance of nutrition” on health outcomes.
The awareness extends across the state, and across geographic and cultural gaps that typically divide Oregonians. Senate Bill 1541 passed both houses unanimously and drew a bipartisan selection of legislators for the signing, including House Minority Leader Mike McLane, R-Powell Butte.
To Thomsen, that’s part of the point.
“This is a way to bring together the farming community and the hunger advocacy community,” he said Thursday, adding later, “It’s a way to get the farming community more in touch with urban Oregon.”
It’s not that hunger in Oregon is particularly an urban problem; some of the worst numbers are in rural areas, such as McLane’s Crook County. But it can be a long distance from Oregon’s fields to the food bank’s loading docks in Northeast Portland, even if lots of Oregon farmers have managed to cover the distance.
The tax credit is 15 percent of the value of the donation, and we won’t see for a while how much that can move farmers to donate surplus crops instead of plowing them under. There are considerable costs to donation – picking, crating, liability – and the credit may not make enough difference.
Kara Smith of Food for Lane County says some farmers have already been in touch; Morgan looks to increase the percentage someday. Growers, she says, are “the single biggest source of untapped food donations. This is a step toward collecting every pear and every cucumber that isn’t going to be sold.”
Chuck Thomsen’s vision isn’t that different. “Instead of just donating the crops that are damaged,” he imagines, “I would try to work it so every grower donates a bin of fruit when they bring in their crop. That’s 300 bins of fruit.”
That’s a question, of course, for harvest time. In the pear orchards, “We’re just going through blossom time right now.”
Plenty of time to see what else might blossom.
David Sarasohn’s column appears on Wednesdays and Sundays. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org