Struggling economy drives escalation of need, hunger

For the second year in a row, distribution of emergency food boxes in Oregon and southwest Washington topped 1 million, according to the Oregon Food Bank Network.

From July 2011 through this June, the Oregon Food Bank distributed 1,124,000 emergency food boxes — a 10 percent increase over the previous year — to families in need in Oregon and Clark County, Wash.

Last year was the first time food bank distribution topped 1 million boxes.

Since 2008, when economic downturn began, food box distribution has increased 41 percent. The OFB Network now distributes about 350,000 more food boxes annually than it did before the recession.

“Unemployment isn’t the only driver of this unprecedented need,” said Janeen Wadsworth, interim CEO of Oregon Food Bank. “Underemployment and limited benefits have forced people with jobs to seek emergency food. And the high cost of food, gas, utilities and rent makes it even more difficult for families to cover basic expenses.”

In an average month, an estimated 270,000 people in Oregon and Clark County, Wash., ate meals from emergency food boxes provided by Network pantries. Of those, almost 92,000 were children.

A typical emergency food box contains a three-to-five day supply of groceries. On average, recipient households turn to food pantries about four times a year.

In addition, OFB Network soup kitchens served 4 million meals during the past year.

And 93,000 people received supplemental food through other food bank agencies and programs, such as low-income day-care centers, free farmers’ markets and senior centers.

The Oregon Food Bank Network includes 20 regional food banks and 945 partner agencies that provided a record 83.4 million pounds of food — equivalent to more than 2,000 semi-truck loads. This translates to about 64 million meals.

Requests for emergency food climbed in almost every corner of Oregon, as well as Clark County, Wash. Regional food

banks with the highest increases included: Clatsop Regional Food Bank in Astoria, 28 percent; Marion-Polk Food Share in Salem, 25 percent; UCAN Food Share in Roseburg, 15 percent; Community Connection in La Grande, 14 percent; OFB-Metro Services, serving Clackamas and Multnomah counties, 13 percent; and Clark County, Wash., 11 percent.

Recent U.S. Census data shows that Oregon’s poverty rate is growing. More than 553,000 Oregonians now live below the poverty rate, which is $23,050 for a family of four. One in five Oregonians participate in SNAP, or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, previously known as food stamps.

Meanwhile, USDA commodities to food banks in Oregon dropped almost 60 percent — from 18 million to 8.5 million pounds —-during the last fiscal year.

“To make up the difference and to provide for the growing need during our last fiscal year, OFB dipped into its reserve fund for the first time to purchase more food for distribution,” Wadsworth said.

The network of food banks are straining to meet the unprecedented need and anticipate even more demand for food boxes if Congress makes cuts to the food stamps program.

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