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Hunger is everyones business

MY VIEW • Solving the problem is a question of community values

If Oregon is for dreamers, count me among them. For more than 20 years, I have been dreaming of the day when no child, no senior citizen, no working parent, no one goes to bed hungry in Oregon or southwest Washington.

But as we enter 2004, Oregon remains among the top states in the nation in unemployment and in hunger.

Last year the number of people in Oregon and southwest Washington who relied on emergency food to stave off hunger increased for the seventh straight year to an estimated 780,000. That figure equals the combined populations of the cities of Portland, Salem and Eugene. Worse yet, 40 percent of those eating meals from an emergency food box were children.

The Oregon Food Bank Network collected and distributed a record 59 million pounds of food last year Ñ more than 1 million pounds a week. Yet the food goes out faster than it comes in.

'We're barely keeping up,' says Bobbie Schmidt, who directs the regional food bank in Grants Pass. 'The Oregon Food Bank truck comes in on Monday, and the food is gone by Wednesday.'

'This is the worst I've seen it,' says Nancy Smith, who operates a regional food bank in Newport. 'Our emergency food pantries are reporting higher numbers and many new clients to boot.'

And here in the metropolitan area, the Oregon Food Bank received close to 8,000 applications for holiday baskets from people in need in Washington County. That's 2,000 more applications than in the previous year.

How can this be in a beautiful state of seeming abundance?

As Oregon's economy continues to struggle, emergency food sites are seeing many new faces, people who have run out of unemployment benefits and depleted their resources and are having to ask for help for the first time. It isn't easy.

But the hunger problem didn't happen overnight. It has been building throughout the past decade. We've seen housing costs soar while wages stagnate. Oregon's housing values shot up 129 percent during the last decade.

We've seen the gap between rich and poor grow four times faster in Oregon than nationally. From the late 1980s to the late 1990s in Oregon, the average family income for the richest one-fifth of the population grew 34 percent, while the income of the poorest one-fifth declined by 6 percent.

And the nature of employment has changed in Oregon. We've lost family-wage jobs and replaced them with low-wage service jobs. An estimated 42 percent of households that receive emergency help have at least one working member. But a minimum part-time or low-wage job doesn't provide enough for the basics Ñ housing, food, child care and health insurance. The majority of the working poor does not have health coverage.

How can you help?

Solving hunger and its underlying causes is a question of the values we demonstrate as a community. It's how we respond to the needs of our neighbors, our children, our elderly, our disabled and our working poor Ñ both with our charitable contributions and with our voices.

Make a New Year's resolution to do whatever is in your power to fight hunger and its causes.

• Donate money. For every dollar you donate, the Oregon Food Bank can collect and distribute about $10 worth of food.

• Volunteer your time throughout the year at the Oregon Food Bank or your local emergency food pantry or soup kitchen. To help, call 503-282-0555.

I believe dreams can come true. We can eliminate hunger and its root causes. But we need your help, because no one should be hungry.

Rachel Bristol is executive director of the Oregon Food Bank. She lives in Southeast Portland.