For the first time ever, distribution of emergency food boxes in Oregon and southwest Washington topped 1 million as growing levels of long-term unemployment forced more and more people to fall into poverty and to seek emergency food.
“I have never seen the demand for emergency food this high,” said Rachel Bristol, CEO, Oregon Food Bank. “Joblessness is taking a tremendous toll on our families. Hiring has stalled, keeping Oregon’s unemployment rate high. Low wages and limited benefits forced even people with jobs to seek emergency food. As a result, poverty has increased significantly. More than a half-million Oregonians now live below the poverty rate.”
The Oregon Food Bank Network of 20 regional food banks and 923 partner agencies provided a record 81 million pounds of food and distributed 1,024,000 emergency food boxes – a 12 percent increase over the previous year – to families in need from July 1, 2010, to June 30, 2011.
Since the beginning of the Great Recession, food box distribution has increased 30 percent increase. The OFB Network now distributes almost a quarter-of-a-million more food boxes annually than it did before the recession.
Regional food banks across the state see the need continuing to grow.
“In 2004-05, the Bend area had one of the lowest unemployment rates in the state,” notes Steve Murray, who directs food and energy programs for NeighborImpact, serving Jefferson, Deschutes and Crook counties. “For the past several years, Central Oregon has had one of the highest rates in the state.
“When the housing bubble burst, we lost our real estate and construction industries,” he explained. “I see nothing to make me think those industries will come back anytime soon.”
Last year, distribution of emergency food in Central Oregon climbed 21 percent, according to Oregon Food Bank annual statistics.
“I’ve been working in food-banking for 15 years,” said Niki Sampson, who heads Klamath/Lake Food Bank, “and, this year, for the first time, I’m scared. The need for food keeps going up. Food box distribution increased 12 percent last year.
“We’re seeing more people seeking food who are underemployed,” she said. “People tell us, ‘I’ve paid most of my bills, but I have only four bucks left until payday. I just need a little help feeding my kids.'"
“Hunger hurts families, children, seniors and those who are disabled,” emphasized Bristol, noting that Oregon was the state with the highest rate of child food insecurity in 2009 and that 50 percent of school-age kids now qualify for free-or-reduced-price meals.
“Children who are hungry have more trouble learning in school. And a number of studies now show that childhood hunger and malnutrition can result in irreversible health problems in the future,” Bristol said.
In an average month, an estimated 260,000 people in Oregon and Clark County, Wash., ate meals from emergency food boxes. Of those, almost 86,000 were children.
In addition, soup kitchens served 3.9 million meals during the past year. And 98,000 people received supplemental food through other OFB Network agencies and programs.
“We were only able to meet this staggering demand for emergency food due to record levels of U.S. Department of Agriculture commodities and the tremendous generosity of the entire community: individuals, groups and businesses.”
USDA commodities increased from 10 million to 18 million pounds with the help of stimulus funds, strong support from Oregon’s congressional delegation and USDA efforts to support American farmers and ranchers through bonus buys of agricultural products.
“This year, we face a very different story,” Bristol said. “Stimulus funding has ended. And we anticipate a 30 percent decline in USDA commodities.”
As the OFB Network enters the 2011-12 fiscal year, Tom Kelley, who heads UCAN Food Bank in Douglas County, already sees food distribution continuing to climb. “In my 20 years in food-banking, we’ve never distributed more than 3,500 emergency food boxes in a month, and we’ve never served more than 13,000 household members in a month. We topped both of those numbers in August. It’s a huge jump for us.”
“In this tough economy, we need the support of the entire community more than ever,” Bristol said. “No one should be hungry. With sufficient public will and support of the entire community, we believe it is possible to eliminate hunger and its root causes.”About the Oregon Food Bank Network
The Oregon Food Bank Network is a collaborative, statewide coalition of 20 regional food banks working to eliminate hunger and its root causes. The OFB Network works with 923 partner agencies throughout Oregon and Clark County, Wash., to help nearly 1 in 5 households fend off hunger.