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Blue Collar, Bare Cupboards (cont’d)

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In a belt of rural counties in eastern New Mexico and western Oklahoma, empty bellies are endemic, as they are in in California’s San Joaquin Delta, one of the most fertile agricultural centers in the world.

A decade ago, Oregon had the highest level of hunger of any state. So, the state government got serious about the problem, channeling resources to help poor Oregonians access the federal food stamp program and encouraging an expansion of private food charities.

Gov. Ted Kulongoski, who set up a Hunger Relief Task Force after taking office, went so far as to live on food stamps for a couple weeks, limiting his food expenditure to $21 per week (or $1 per meal), the average amount allotted per food stamp recipient in the state, as a public relations gimmick intended to focus attention on the problem.

“It was an incredible challenge for us,” says Erinn Kelley-Siel, the governor’s human services adviser. “Too many Oregonians are having to rely on food banks to supplement emergency needs and are relying on food stamps as primary sources of food.”

Oregon’s numbers improved, but they did so mainly through a reduction in hunger in the big cities. In rural areas like Benton County, the problem grew worse.

In 2000, the state classified 11.2 percent of rural residents as being “food insecure.” Four years later, that number had grown to 13.6 percent of all rural residents.

But after years of overall progress, the return of economic hard times means that hunger statewide has started to edge up once again, following a path seen in almost every state in the country.

In two of the hardest hit counties, Linn and Benton, food bank workers estimate that 42,000 people received food boxes in 2007. And, unlike the Portland metro area to the north, these counties have small populations.

Statewide, 11.9 percent of Oregonians are now classified as being “food insecure.” Nationally, the figure is 11.4 percent. Surveys by food banks and food pantries consistently find that high utility bills, gas prices and healthcare costs, along with job loss and inadequate food stamp coverage, are pushing more and more working Americans into reliance on private food charities. Volunteers’ anecdotes back up these findings.

Yet even as the need has grown, federal government has drastically cut both funding and food contributions to food banks. In 2000, food banks nationwide received $250 million in federal funds through Title IV of the farm bill. Today, that number is $140 million.

A generation ago, at the high watermark of USDA subsidies for food banks, 90 percent of the food these organizations received came from the federal government. These days a food bank such as Oregon’s huge FOOD for Lane County storage facility, based out of a strip mall a couple miles from downtown Eugene, receives only 12 percent of its food from the feds.

An hour’s drive to the north, in the town of Corvallis, the falloff in federal aid has been even more dramatic. As recently as 1987, 85 percent of the food received, and distributed, by the Linn-Benton County Food Share came from the USDA. In 2008, that number is 6 percent, says Ryan McCambridge, director of the Linn-Benton County Food Share, in the central Oregon city of Corvallis.

“We make up the difference and the shortfall by literally begging it from our communities–local businesses, farmers, food drives, grocery stores. Everyone and anyone,” says Denise Griewisch, FOOD for Lane County’s executive director. It is, she explains, akin to a “voluntary tithe” on the local population.

Farmers, Griewisch notes, are producing less food, as they divert more land to growing corn for biofuels, meaning that, since 2003, the government has been able to purchase less surplus. What food is produced is now costing more and is often ending up on the export market, snapped up by consumers in other countries with their own food production shortfalls.

To add a final twist, new computer programs allow supermarkets to calculate inventory more effectively, which means that supermarkets have less excess produce to donate to food pantries.

Statewide, the Oregon Food Bank has seen its supply of food dwindle by 3 million pounds a year since 2005, according to its Chief Executive Officer Rachel Bristol. As a result, the size of food boxes is being cut in some locations, down from a five-to-seven day supply to a mere three days.

This past year, says Griewisch, food contributions to FOOD for Lane County were down in every donation category. And that’s a problem, given that 3 percent to 5 percent of Lane County’s 338,000 residents eat a food box meal on any given day, according to the organization’s estimates, and 20 percent of county residents are food insecure at some point during the year.

“For a lot of folks, the emergency food box system was set up to respond to family emergencies,” says McCambridge of the Linn-Benton County Food Share. “Over the last eight to nine years, instead of emergencies, people are relying on food boxes to a greater extent. It’s really becoming a supplement to incomes. The biggest demographic is folks who have jobs and can’t make enough to make ends meet.”

When illness means no paycheck

Juan Cortez-Villa is a 30-year-old father of four, who lives in Eugene and works full time in a local wheat-packaging mill. Before that, he worked at another mill, in Medford. He wears a puffy gray jacket to protect himself from the winter cold, a white baseball cap, jeans and heavy boots. On his face is a thin goatee.

Juan earns $13.25 per hour, and, after taxes, brings home $1,800 per month. His income places the family above the poverty line. But between the money he sends back to his mother in Mexico, the rent, his utility bills and soaring medical expenses, Juan has found it harder to stay afloat. At the end of every month, there’s always a shortfall.

Juan would need “$15, $16 an hour” to overcome the gap, he explains through a translator in a community center in Eugene known as Centro.

Since the rent and utility bills must be paid, his family regularly goes short on food. When he’s gotten sick and had to take unpaid leave from the mill, the family has ended up with nothing.

“I was unable to do anything,” he says, “get any help. Some person gave me a phone number to this place [Centro]. I had no food for eight days, with my sons and wife.” He pauses, and qualifies his statement. “Just a little food. A friend gave me eggs, tortillas. I felt sad for myself, was crying. It’s bad for my family. I was scared because I didn’t know how to look for help.”

Immigrants, mainly Latino, make up 4.6 percent of Lane County’s population, and more than one-quarter of Latinos in the county live at, or below, the poverty level.

Statewide, according to the Northwest Federation of Community Organizations, nearly half of Latino adults experience food insecurity. Throw in a medical emergency, and all the ingredients are present for people to go hungry.

Buddy, can you spare a dime?

At the Catholic Community Services center in the working-class town of Springfield, a 15 minute drive from Eugene, you can see a line snaking outside the one-time church on any given Monday, Wednesday or Friday morning.

Young and old, male and female, they wait patiently for the doors to open and for staff members to place their names into a database. Then they enter the food pantry and fill their boxes with whatever food has been donated that week.

“On a slow day, we’ll serve 80-to-100 people,” says Joe Softich, 61, the church’s food program manager. “Toward the end of the month, I expect to do at least 140 families, maybe 180.”

Softich is a skinny, gray-haired man, his somewhat gaunt face covered by a thick beard. He grew up in a grocery store in the copper-company town of Anaconda, Mont., studied microbiology, Russian and religion in college in the ’60s, and decided long ago that feeding the hungry was his calling in life.

He shows me freezers full of meat and vegetables, boxes of beans and fruit, peanut butter and cartons of milk. “We see so much need. You hear these stories day after day. You need something to sustain you beyond feeling good about what you do. It’s a delicate thing, to be able to help in a way that isn’t demeaning.”

Softich estimates that 13,330 Springfield residents received food from Catholic Community Services last year.

“We ran out of food three days ago,” says Angela Oliver, 38, a one-time drug addict who got clean and recently moved back from Washington State to Oregon to live with her sister and her sister’s four children. “We have a few things in the freezer meat-wise, but I’m pretty much a vegetarian,” she says. “We have no milk for the little ones, no vegetables, no bread.”

Three of the four children get free lunches from school, Oliver says, and the fourth, the youngest, lives with her grandmother. “The kids don’t go hungry. They eat before I do, [but] there wasn’t seconds. There was just enough for everyone.” She adds: “If there was no food bank, I honestly don’t know what I would do. We couldn’t even scrounge dimes up right now.”

To be poor in America has never been easy. But to be poor in Bush’s America is devastating. The federal government has turned its back on–and has made it clear it doesn’t take responsibility for–those who are unable to make it on their own.

Sasha Abramsky is a freelance journalist and the author of the recently published American Furies: Crime, Punishment and Vengeance in the Age of Mass Imprisonment (Beacon). He is also a senior fellow of democracy at Demos, a New York-based think tank.

Sasha Abramsky is the author, most recently, of American Furies: Crime, Punishment, and Vengeance in the Age of Mass Imprisonment.

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