Child hunger may be the symptom of a larger problem in Oregon.

When confronted with the question of why Oregon has the highest rate of child hunger among the nation's 50 states, it is tempting to dismiss the problem as a statistical aberration.

Oregon, after all, isn't Arkansas. It isn't Mississippi or Georgia - which are among the other states that show up near the top of the child-hunger charts. Aren't we supposed to be more advanced than that?

Sadly, our reputation for progressive policies and compassionate ideologies don't put food on the table. Nor do they answer the vexing question of why Oregon of all places would be ranked dead last among the states for its ability to feed its children.

Many people have theories and possible explanations for why Oregon's child hunger rate is so high. (See story on page 12A.) Perhaps there are variations in how states account for child hunger, but we also can point to a number of underlying conditions in Oregon that would lead to food insecurity for the state's most vulnerable populations.

Oregon still has a high rate of underemployment - fully one-fifth of those people who would like to be working are out of a job or employed in a job that pays less than they need.

Oregon also hasn't been particularly effective at attracting the types of high-value jobs that in turn create more overall community wealth. Good jobs make families more secure, but they also generate the tax revenue that funds services such as schools, health care and the social safety net. As Oregon has stumbled economically, it also has slipped in its ability to fund public services - thereby exacerbating problems such as child hunger and poverty.

Still, no one can point to a definitive reason why 29.2 percent of this state's children are experiencing food insecurity, as documented by the Chicago-based nonprofit Feeding America.

We believe the first step in addressing the issue is to put someone in charge. We think the Oregon Health Authority, which runs the state's children's nutrition program - should be authorized to find the root causes of child hunger in Oregon.

Hunger may be the most alarming symptom of Oregon's larger problem - its difficulty in moving toward a 21st-century economy that extends benefits to all corners of the state. Oregon doesn't always recognize itself as a struggling state - and, yes, the Feeding America report makes it clear that childhood hunger is a nationwide affliction.

But the 252,000 Oregon children who live in what Feeding America calls 'food insecure households' cannot be brushed aside as mere numbers. Their health and their future productivity to this state are in great jeopardy. Oregon's leaders owe them a thorough evaluation of the problem - an analysis that actually tells the state why so many children are at risk of hunger and what can be done to improve that.

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