Features » March 26, 2008
Blue Collar, Bare Cupboards
Ten miles outside Eugene in west central Oregon, little wooden houses and mobile homes make up the town of Alvadore. The homes are too far apart to give the town–population 1,358–the appearance of a city, yet too close together for it to come off as true countryside. Old, domestically manufactured cars line the streets, as well as a few rundown mom-and-pop convenience stores.
Small farmers, mill workers and construction people live here. And they work hard–or at least they do when they can get employment. There’s a dry nuts and prunes plant just outside town, as well as a Country Coach facility that manufactures motor homes. Many of the residents hold down several jobs to make ends meet. Yet for an increasing number of people in Alvadore, getting a paycheck–or even several paychecks–is not the same as earning enough to put food on the table.
Schools throughout the counties of central Oregon, the state’s hunger belt, report that kids come to classes hungry on Mondays–and endure the long summer vacation months when no free school lunches exist.
Alvadore, like many dilapidated towns in modern-day America, is at the wrong end of an array of economic changes–from globalization to higher energy costs–and many of its citizens are falling through the social safety net. The result: increased hunger.
Payday loans and food boxes
Many of the town’s residents turn to the corner of 8th and B Streets, where the large wooden Alvadore Christian Church stands. On the fourth Thursday of each month, a sign is staked in the churchyard: Food Pantry.
During the winter months, around 40 families show up to receive bread, muffins, applesauce, canned soups, canned vegetables and other staples. In the summers the number of families served increases.
In one corner of the church is a table of food provided by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). The rest–the vast majority–comes from donations by the local community. It’s a model that works during flush times, but it isn’t a particularly effective way of feeding the hungry during down times, when more people are struggling to make ends meet and fewer are able to donate food to charity.
Becky Darnall, 34, volunteers at the pantry and also relies on the food boxes from it. She says that when the pantry first opened two years ago, “we had 26-to-28 families. Within the last six months, it’s gone up to 40.”
Becky’s husband is a cook at a restaurant in nearby Springfield. In 2006, he earned $24,000. Last year, $27,000. This year, with a pay raise, he hopes to earn $30,000. As for Becky, she works part time as house-help for one of her neighbors, which brings in $8 an hour.
They have three kids, are raising a nephew and are living in a 30-year-old mobile home with a leaky roof and dubious electrical wiring. They drive an old Chevy Blazer with a malfunctioning engine that they cannot afford to repair, and that reduces the vehicle’s fuel efficiency to a ludicrous–and prohibitively expensive–seven miles per gallon. Becky’s husband spends $15 per day just driving to and from work.
Until this year, the family was unable to afford co-payments on the health insurance offered through her husband’s work. As a result, the Darnalls were saddled with $1,000 in emergency room bills when Becky came down with asthmatic bronchitis last year. The bills got sent to a collection agency, and the family is now struggling to pay them off. This past November, Becky’s husband needed an MRI, which landed the family with an additional $1,200 to pay off.
“We can get by,” Becky says cautiously, “but the difference between volunteering [at the church] and not is vegetable soup with macaroni thrown in. … It’s more like a real dinner.”
Before she started coming to the pantry, she says her family jumped through hoops to qualify for food stamps, and still ended up with hardly enough food to survive. “There were a few times it was really tight. But we got by.”
At first, Becky says, they borrowed from friends. Then they started borrowing against their future income. “The payday loan thing, which is a nightmare,” she says, referring to the practice many low-income Americans have resorted to in recent years of borrowing against their paychecks in order to make it through the last days of the pay period. It’s an exploitative–and usurious–financial trap that, over the years, has contributed to the economic crippling of America’s poor.
“It took us almost a year to get out of it,” Becky acknowledges. “But without it, we’d have been S.O.L,” she says, laughing bitterly.
The Darnalls have been married 17 years, but only in the last year have they had to decide, month to month, which bills to pay and which services will get shut off.
“And my husband’s worked the whole time,” Becky says. “We didn’t sit back and live off the system.”
JELL-O, but no fruit
Across America, close to 40 million people are listed as being “food insecure,” according to the USDA. That means that even if they don’t actually go hungry, they constantly worry about how to put food on the table.
The Darnalls fit this category. So, too, does 83-year-old widow Helen Wagy, a retired laundress who worked for 35 years and now receives $912 a month in Social Security–her entire retirement income. Wagy lives in a mobile home in the town of Corvallis, Ore. She gets boxes of food from a group known as Gleaners that gathers unpicked produce from local fields and persuades supermarkets to donate produce that is damaged or has exceeded sell-by dates.
“I have rent to pay, electricity to pay, telephone to pay and the luxury of a TV to pay,” Wagy says, bundled in a fleece jacket and purple trousers, as she sits in a chilly wooden building owned by the city’s park department, in a little park off the highway. The building–not much more than a shack crammed with fridges and freezers–serves as a distribution point for Gleaners.
Her friend Roberta Coulter chips in. Without Gleaners, she explains, “I’d probably lose a lot of weight. They help me very much. Without them, I could make the JELL-O but I wouldn’t have the fruit.”
And they are the lucky ones.
Of the nearly 40 million who fear going hungry, an estimated 11 million-plus Americans occasionally miss meals, according to the USDA. They include many adults in a family who sacrifice their own portions to ensure their children are fed.
In most countries, such people would be defined as being “hungry.” Bush’s America uses a more Orwellian term.
In 2006, the USDA instructed government agencies to no longer refer to this group as being hungry. The change came about after a Committee on National Statistics of the National Academies reported it could not conclusively determine whether people who couldn’t afford to buy food actually experienced “discomfort, illness, weakness or pain that goes beyond the usual uneasy sensation.”
As a result, the 11 million Americans who cannot afford to stock their houses with food are now classfied as experiencing “very low food security.”
In the decades since the Great Depression of the 1930s, this category would have been made up largely of the long-term unemployed, the homeless, perhaps the mentally ill and other marginalized groups.
These days, however, increasingly it is the working poor–whose wages have stagnated, whose cost of living has gone up with higher gas, food and healthcare expenses, and whose time is now spent standing in line at food banks.
A 21st century depression
Over the past decade, the percentage of food bank clients in Oregon who are members of a family with at least one person employed has gone from 30 percent to 47 percent–an increase that translates into tens of thousands of Oregon families.
But this problem is not exclusive to Oregon, where the local economy has been decimated by the collapse of the timber industry, and the threat of going to bed hungry absent the aid of food charities is constant.
Throughout the United States, a startlingly raw form of poverty has entrenched itself within the bottom tier of the economy. In Appalachia, where hunger has never been far from the surface, states such as Virginia and Tennessee continue to see high levels of hunger.
In parts of Texas, especially border regions dotted with the colonias of immigrant populations, food insecurity swells.
Sasha Abramsky is the author, most recently, of American Furies: Crime, Punishment, and Vengeance in the Age of Mass Imprisonment.