Blue Collar, Bare Cupboards

Sasha Abramsky

Reliance on food pantries has grown in Alvadore, Ore., as well as in other small towns across the country.

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.

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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