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National election campaigns siphon off food donations

Food banks notice drop in donations during presidential election years


by: MARA STINE - Noah, 21 months, touches the soft teddy bear that's part of a care package given to his mother Kirstie, 23, when she picked up an emergency food box from SnowCap last week. It’s a question we’ve all heard during this ramp up to November’s presidential election: Are you better off today than four years ago?

Political pundits may have the luxury of such self-reflection, but the people at SnowCap Community Charities in Gresham’s Rockwood neighborhood are busy just trying to get through today.

They have no time for political jabs.

Instead, they’re scraping together coins for gas, coordinating bus transfers or getting rides from family to the food pantry at 17805 S.E. Stark St.

Need — for food, jobs, clothes, anything and everything needed for survival — is unprecedented, says SnowCap’s executive director, Judy Alley.

The food pantry shelves are emptier than usual, as they always are at this time during a presidential election year.

Alley, who’s headed the agency for 22 years, noticed the trend three election cycles ago.

“The drop is only noticeable in presidential years,” she says. “I suspect that people only have so much disposable money to spend on extras. If you give to charities most of the time, but they decide to support a presidential candidate, that donation will have to come out of the money you would usually give to your favorite charities.”

Don’t get her wrong. Alley has nothing against political contributions.

“They are important and can shape the future of our nation,” she says. “I’m just saying it leaves the charity making do with less.”

How much less?

“Between food and cash, we’re down about 10 percent compared to last year at this time,” Alley said.

And things were not too rosy last year, either.

Last year, SnowCap was short $24,000 in cash donations and $26,000 in food last fiscal year. “I don’t expect that things will get better until Christmas,” she says.

It’s so bad, SnowCap has reduced the number of times a family can visit the pantry from 12 times a year to six.

And it’s not just SnowCap.

For the first time in its history, the Oregon Food Bank gave out more than 1 million emergency food boxes last year.

This year’s forecasts are just as grim: The food bank expects to pass the 1 million-box mark.

“We have in general seen a similar phenomenon,” said Laura Golino De Lovato, director of development, marketing and communications for the Oregon Food Bank. “Monetary contributions are diverted to campaigns and political causes.”

During the last presidential election in 2008, the recession was just starting, she said.

“We didn’t see a big decrease due to the election because it was offset by a heightened awareness of the need,” she said.

But long-term unemployment, foreclosures and new layoffs have continued to push up demand for food boxes an estimated 10 percent over roughly the past year.

Interestingly, De Lovato has seen evidence of the ballyhooed economic recovery

“We’re seeing more working people needing food,” De Lovato said. Although they’ve found work, lower wage service jobs without benefits are replacing cut positions.

Extended unemployment benefits also are being reduced nationwide.

“Because of that, we expect even more need,” De Lovato said. “It’s tough.”

Nobody knows this better than Kirstie, a 23-year-old Gresham woman who asked that her last name not be used.

Her father, Keith, gave her and her 21-month-old son Noah a ride to SnowCap on Wednesday, Sept. 12.

Her husband, a plumber, has been out of work for about a year.

With cash from odd jobs being their only income, the family was not eligible for food stamps, she said. He just got a new job and is now food stamp eligible.

But they have to move.

Their rental house is being foreclosed.

And they have a baby girl due at the end of this month.

Kirstie places bags of fresh produce and boxes of food in the trunk of her father’s sedan. She already plans to use the zucchini, squash and tomatoes in a pasta sauce.

“If there weren’t places like this, we’d be struggling a lot more,” she says. “I’ve never needed this assistance before.”

The past year’s been hard. But she’s gained an appreciation for the fragile grass-roots safety net that’s out there for families like hers.

What she’s most impressed by might surprise you.

“The kindness of people,” she says.

MORE ONLINE

To check out CBS News’ segment on how political contributions are siphoning money away from food banks go to cbsnews.com/8301-18563_162-57505045/food-bank-veteran-politics-takes-away-donations/.

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